"The Sentence" | Reviewed by Pat Sainz
Pulitzer Prize winner Louise Erdrich has written another stellar book, “The Sentence.” Like many of her books for children and adults, its themes include current Native American issues involving loss of heritage, displacement and challenges for equal treatment of indigenous people socially and politically. Magical elements intertwine with realism in most of Erdrich’s stories, including this one.
The word “sentence” from the title has several meanings that connect with the story. It was enlightening to discover what a main character considers to be the perfect spoken and written sentence in the universe. That perfect sentence relates to many situations in the novel.
Erdrich’s characters and setting revolve around a bookstore in Minneapolis, Birchbark Books. (Erdrich herself owns Birchbark Books in Minneapolis.) Most of the time frame is from November 2019 to November 2020. All characters are affected by the George Floyd murder and the onslaught of COVID beginning in March, 2020.
Tookie is the main protagonist. When the story opens, she is in her 30s, in 2005, and is unjustly sentenced to 60 years in prison for a crime. Tookie uses her time in prison to read books sent to her by a former teacher. She takes college classes. After 10 years, she is released. She finds a job working with her former teacher at Birchbark Books. She is hired by Louise, ostensibly Louise Erdrich, who has put herself in the novel in a limited role.
Tookie begins her quiet life in a new marriage. In 2019, her life is interrupted by Flora, a friend and client of the bookstore. Flora dies suddenly and begins haunting the bookstore. Tookie is not the only employee who recognizes her presence.
Interwoven with Tookie’s efforts to expunge Flora’s ghost is her relationship with her stepdaughter and other compelling characters who frequent the bookstore. All are affected by the murder of George Floyd. The descriptions of the marches and the destruction along with the sadness of the event provide a vivid portrayal of a current event. The horrific incident is described in the light of a race that has also been subject to persecution in the past and present.
The trauma of the 2020 pandemic affects the characters who give voice to the chaos wrought by COVID. When someone close to Tookie is hospitalized with the virus, she learns poignant truths about love and appreciation before it is too late. Tookie’s reflections and new awareness will resonate with readers who have suffered losses or near-losses of loved ones.
Erdrich’s novel offers a rich portrait of relatable people along with a unique perspective of events that occurred during the last two years. "The Sentence" is a compelling story that showcases Erdrich’s powerful storytelling abilities.
A wonderful addendum to the book is a list of 145 books called “Totally Biased List of Tookie’s Favorite Books.” (I assume these are some of Erdrich’s favorite books.) The list of books is divided into categories such as “Short Perfect Novels” and “Survival, Friendship, Adventure.” I recommend this list for anyone looking for book suggestions.
A children’s book, "Grandmother's Pigeon," by Louise Erdrich has just been re-released. It is a charming story that involves realism and magic that are part of Erdrich’s adult and children’s novels. It is a perfect read-aloud with grandchildren!