Louise Erdrich’s “The Sentence” considers the (literally) haunting power of books

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Who among us hasn’t, in some sense, stolen a corpse and accidentally smuggled crack cocaine across state lines? This is a question you will ponder as you read Louise Erdrich’s “The Sentence”, a haunting novel that begins with a crime that would seem to defy “relativity” but becomes a practical metaphor for the moral crimes lurking in your guilty heart. .

Tookie is the criminal in question. She is an “ugly woman”, an Ojibwa woman and a woman who is indicted after locking a dead man in a tarp and delivering the body, to which crack is secretly taped, in a refrigerated truck to a friend. Tookie’s reasons for doing so are silly but not bad – a defense that historically speaking has gone unsuccessful in court. She turns 60.

After a decade, the sentence was commuted and Tookie got a job at a Minneapolis bookstore specializing in Native culture. (She was hired because of her intimidating presence: black eyeliner, black stompers, nose ring, eyebrow cuff. “Who wouldn’t dare buy me a book?” both rhetorically and correctly.) work, the bookstore’s most annoying customer, Flora, dies. Five days later, Flora’s ghost enters the store and begins to torment Tookie.

As a living presence, Flora’s extreme annoyance stemmed from her obsession with all things Native, as well as her claim that she was “an Indian in a past life.” (It appears to be all white.) When this line fails to convince any of the bookstore workers, Flora finds a photo of a great-grandmother she presumes to be Indigenous based on the evidence the woman is wearing. a dark expression and a shawl. in his portrait. “The woman in the picture looked Indian, or maybe she was just in a bad mood,” Tookie concludes with characteristic irony (Erdrich is a formidable summoner of annoyed and charismatic heroines, and Tookie is no exception) .

The circumstances of Flora’s death are peculiar: she dies at 5 a.m. for no apparent reason, with an open book next to her. The book – an antique journal with hand-printed cover pages and spider-writing in gray-blue ink – takes on the quality of a murder weapon when Flora’s adopted daughter one day puts it in the hands of Tookie, noting the section where his mother stopped reading.

Credit…Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times

When Tookie settles down to decipher the book, she finds a tale of 19th century captivity, but not of the kind white woman kidnapped by Indians. It seems to be the opposite: an indigenous woman kidnapped by white people. Interesting, Tookie thinks. But she is too scared to continue reading. What if the death sentence that claimed Flora’s life also applied to Tookie? As an appeal, she finds a can of lighter fluid and attempts to burn the book on an outdoor hibachi grill, where it resists destruction. She takes the book with an ax, with the same result. Finally, she digs a hole and buries the cursed text in her garden, then goes inside to thaw a block of soup and make some crunches. But the object will not disappear, and neither will Flora. What initially appears to be a aimless haunt turns out to be deadly accurate supernatural missile fire. Flora wants something, and it’s only when Tookie decodes what it is that she can exorcise the woman’s malicious presence.

In the midst of all of this, the pandemic is coming. Spring is flowing. The milkweed comes out of the ground. The pines grow new tender bundles. George Floyd is killed by police near Cup Foods where Tookie’s husband stops to buy a thing or two on his way home. Protests erupt. The musky chalk smell of tear gas fogs the air. The bookstore is criticized: “Everyone who was not on the street wanted to know why everyone was on the street.” Time dissolves. One section of the book is dated “May 34”. Within the chronological plot are dreams, memories, hauntings, and other types of temporal chaos.

As the title suggests, “The Sentence” is an incredibly bookish book. The layers of books are dizzying: from micro (an employee is called Pen) to macro (the central mystery: Was Flora killed by a book?). It’s a novel obsessed with the operations of running an independent bookstore: dealing with publishers, playing the Tetris game which is the storage space, packing mail order orders. Erdrich owns an independent bookstore called Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, which shares some similarities with the fictitious store – including an owner named Louise and a denominational booth. On the website of the (real) bookstore, a note explains that the confessional was saved from a previous life as a sound booth in a bar, and that “Louise is sticking inside pictures of her sins. “.

“The Sentence” is injected with literary criticism and has an appendix containing the favorite books of its main character. This appendix itself is divided into thematic sublists, and through these sublists are several books which, in turn, are about books. The novel begins and ends with Tookie consulting a dictionary. It’s books at the bottom.

It’s also Erdrich at the bottom. In an article published 30 years ago, academic Catherine Rainwater observed that Erdrich’s books are filled with “extreme cases of code conflict.” These include the cleavages between industrial time and ceremonial time; Christian theology and shamanic religion; the nuclear family and tribal kinship structures. “The Sentence” finds its protagonist stuck in a space like the one between the rough, soft sides of a Velcro closure. Tookie cannot reconcile her husband’s affiliations – he’s a former tribal policeman – with his own experiences of state-inflicted violence; nor can she reconcile her sense of physical strength with her mental permeability.

Erdrich, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2020 novel “The Night Watchman,” once called books “perfectly evolved technology,” like bread. Her most recent is weird, enchanting and funny: a work about motherhood, unhappiness, regret and magic – dark, benevolent and every nuance in between – words on paper.

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