A new novel by Louise Erdrich Haunted by Covid and the death of George Floyd

THE SENTENCE
By Louise Erdrich

Some people spent their pandemic incarceration learning a new language, refining their cooking skills, increasing their step count, or gardening. Louise Erdrich spent the time writing a novel. In particular, she wrote a ghost story, “The Sentence,” and the further you read in this captivating account of what happens after a loyal bookseller dies and her ghost refuses to leave the store she loved, the more appropriate Erdrich’s genre choice seems. . This novel is mainly set in the year 2020, which itself started to seem haunted as Covid spread and the dead piled up. as if they are a landscape of repeating features.”

Initially, the ghost of Flora, an elderly customer who dropped dead, haunts only Tookie, the narrator, a middle-aged Native American who works in a Minneapolis bookstore that specializes in works about native peoples. In life, Flora was a scourge who, with annoying self-righteousness, never stopped wanting to be an Indian. Tookie recalls ‘how she once told me that I couldn’t talk about ‘Indian’ or ‘Aboriginal’, but always had to say ‘native’. I told her I’d call myself whatever I wanted and I’d get the fuck out of my face.’

What Tookie calls himself is another matter. Because Flora isn’t the first of Tookie’s ghosts. She is haunted by her mother’s addiction and death, haunted by a misguided childhood and her time in prison, and although she is resilient, she is haunted by the idea that something isn’t right about her – that if there is a way to sew something on, she will find it.

Above all, Tookie craves normal. Normal is not her standard. Normal is her ideal, where she is allowed to “live as a person with a regular life. A job with fixed hours after which I come home to a permanent husband.” All she wants is for her life to “go on with its precious routine. And it has. However. Order tends to disorder. Chaos stalks our feeble efforts. One must always be on guard.” Flora is Tookie’s first warning that being wary may not be enough.

Sensing only the presence of the ghost at first, Tookie doubts her own sanity. Is she just projecting? Or if she is healthy and there is a mind, why does the mind focus? her? Tookie is puzzling over all this when the pandemic comes and the world is turned upside down. And then George Floyd is murdered in the same town Tookie lives and works, and a persistent ghost is suddenly just one of her problems.

Towards the end of the novel, the idea of ​​ghosts is expanded to include those parts of the past that refuse to die because we have refused to process them. “Like every state in our country, Minnesota started with blood expropriation and slavery,” Tookie says. “Sometimes I think our state’s early days haunt everything: the city’s attempts to graft progressive ideas onto its racist roots, the fact that we cannot undo history, but are forced to face it or to repeat.”

“The Sentence” covers a lot of ground, from ghosts to the joys and tribulations of bookselling to the lives of Native Americans and inmates who struggle. And that’s just the first half of the story, before the pandemic, for George Floyd. The novel gets a bit baggy after a while as Erdrich struggles to juggle multiple storylines. But the virtues here outweigh the flaws so much that complaining almost seems like ingratitude.

“The Sentence” is full of passages that leave you cold, especially when Erdrich, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her previous novel, “The Night Watchman,” articulates lost, blinding moments that made 2020 not only tragic but downright weird. and disturbing.

Just as life comes to a close, Tookie drives home with her husband as Chinese takeaways perfume the car as they drive through the dark, “empty, peaceful streets” of Minneapolis. “Why can’t it always be like this?” Tookie asks her husband.

“He looked at me funny. I turned to the side. The empty street rustled under the tires. Maybe I should have been ashamed. Why did I feel this was the world I had always been waiting for?”

Towards the end, she sums up our collective nightmare as the time when ‘we stumbled through a year that sometimes seemed like the beginning of the end. A slow tornado. I want to forget this year, but I’m also afraid that I won’t remember this year.” There is something wonderfully comforting in the precise recollection of such secret memories, like someone quietly opening a door to a small sliver of clarity.

Set in a bookshop, told by a bookseller whose former life in prison was turned upside down when she discovered books and began reading “with murderous attention,” “The Sentence” repeatedly attests to the power books possess to heal us and, yes , to change our lives. It may be that, as Tookie puts it, “books contain everything worth knowing, except what matters in the end.” But despite that harsh judgment, there are books like this one that, while they may not solve the mysteries of the human heart, go a long way in shedding light on our predicament. In the case of ‘The Sentence’ that is enough.

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