Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence (Harper 2021) was my last read of the year, and it was my favorite read of the year. (I didn’t think anything would edge out Black Sun, but Erdrich’s effortless, timely and amazing storytelling did. I shouldn’t have been surprised; Erdrich has been weaving some of my favorite stories for decades.)
Set in 2020, The Sentence is a time-capsule of a novel that slices across your skin like a serrated knife; it hurts with the truth of itself. The novel opens on All Souls’ Day in 2019 and ends a year later, carrying the reader through the initial fear and confusion of Covid-19, the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed (the novel is set in Minneapolis), and the election. Nestled between events that will forever mark the year are the individual lives, and that is where Erdrich always shines.
Tookie is a felon. She was sentenced to sixty years after she carried a body across state lines. She was doing it for love and money, but she didn’t know about the drugs strapped to his body. The white women who’d orchestrated the entire transport, using Tookie as the mule for their dead mule, received a slap on the wrist while Tookie was made an example of. Years later, the racial disparity of sentencing resulted in her sentence being commuted.
She takes a job at independent bookstore because an old schoolteacher had gifted her a dictionary while she was imprisoned, and a love of reading and literature flourished. (The bookstore in the novel is Erdrich’s own indie, Birchbark Books. Erdrich even writes herself into The Sentence as the owner who makes a couple of appearances and is on a book tour when the world shuts down due to Covid.)
Upon her release, Tookie marries the tribal cop, Pollux, who’d arrested her. He leaves the profession not long after her arrest, but his former profession and the arrest cause some tensions to bubble to the surface during the protests following George Floyd’s murder.
As the world burns around her, Tookie and the bookstore are being haunted by a former customer. Make no mistake, Flora isn’t the only ghost Tookie has to face in these pages. She must face the demons of her past and the ghosts of today to move forward. How Tookie’s walls come down and the ice around her heart melts marks Erdrich still as one of my favorite authors; few can write a beautifully broken and memorable character as she can.
Sixty years is a sentence, but so are “The door is open. Go.” And this is a book of life; it’s full of rawness and reality, a jagged scar of a read, but oh the hope.
Read this book.