When, partway through “The Sentence,” a new novel by Louise Erdrich, a hundred-and-two-year-old tree falls down, the leafy crown looks “powerful,” “inviting.” Characters gather to touch the lichen-spotted bark. “So friendly,” someone marvels. Powerful, inviting, friendly—these adjectives might describe Erdrich’s own strengths, ramifying across more than twenty volumes of poetry, fiction, children’s literature, and essays. Erdrich often writes about the “Indigerati”—her name for urban, intellectual Native Americans—of the Upper Midwest. (Her previous novel “The Night Watchman” was inspired by her grandfather, an activist and local hero; it won the Pulitzer Prize, in 2021.) The books are marked by warmth and patience, and by their protagonists’ sly, rough-edged amiability. They often shimmer with spirits, and yet their true uncanniness derives from Erdrich’s more classical facility with evocation and character. A climactic scene in “The Sentence,” for instance, scoops up an earlier image only to repurpose it: “I closed my eyes,” the narrator says, “and in the blackness my tree crashed down, flailing forward. My branches caught and lowered me until I was floating just over the floor.”
“The Sentence,” though, is not—or not only—a fantastical portrait of inner life. It’s more like a room stuffed with ideas, history, big chunks of shorter novels, peripheral characters, and plots rolled up like carpets to lean companionably against the walls. The protagonist is Tookie, an Ojibwe woman in middle age. During her thirties, Tookie was involved in a body-snatching caper—she stole a man’s remains, unwittingly transporting the crack cocaine taped under his armpits across state lines—and received a sixty-year prison sentence. (“This light word”—sentence—“lay so heavily upon me,” she says.) A lawyer managed to cut her time to a decade; Tookie now works at a bookstore owned by an eccentric older writer named Louise. (Erdrich, too, runs a specialty bookshop in Minneapolis, called Birchbark Books.) She has married Pollux, the tribal cop who arrested her, and moved into a “regular little house” with “a big irregular beautiful blowsy yard.” She marvels to find herself inside “such a golden life.”
At the bookstore, we meet Tookie’s co-workers—Pen, a poet; Jackie, a former teacher—and Erdrich interweaves their stories in the unforced manner of Olga Tokarczuk, who receives an admiring shout-out. Tookie loves Tokarczuk; she also loves Amitav Ghosh, Toni Morrison, Clarice Lispector, and some hundred other authors whose names appear on a “Totally Biased List of Tookie’s Favorite Books” at the end of the novel. She is a wry student of publishing trends, observing that, a few years ago, “The Whatever’s Wife or Daughter” was a title-page “favorite.” Literature, which kept Tookie sane in lockup, now commands her heart. She develops a special interest in one patron, whom she nicknames “Dissatisfaction,” and insists that small bookstores have a magic about them, albeit a melancholy one: “the romance of doomed intimate spaces about to be erased by unfettered capitalism.”
But it’s a more local threat that disrupts Tookie’s idyll. Flora, her “most annoying” customer, dies on All Soul’s Day of 2019 and arrives at the shop within a week. Flora may seem benign by spectral standards—a rustle of silk here, a clatter of bracelets there—but her postmortem M.O. tracks with prior tendencies: Tookie explains that Flora, though apparently a white woman, had been a “stalker” of “all things Indigenous,” a “wannabe” who frequently overstayed her welcome. (At one point, Flora had boasted that she’d been an Indian “in a former life”; at another, she’d dug up a photograph of “a grim woman in a shawl”—an ancestor who “looked Indianesque,” Tookie says, “or she might have just been in a bad mood.”) With gentle humor, Flora’s visitations flip the racial script: rather than unquiet Natives rising from violated land, Erdrich conjures a busybody settler exasperating the Ojibwe living. The ghostly subplot serves as a vehicle for Erdrich’s wit, and offers a pleasurable shot of spookiness.
Yet there are hints of something darker. Flora’s hijinks aside, Tookie is undeniably haunted—both by the experience of confinement and by a psychic disturbance that is harder to place. (“I will tell you this,” Tookie says, introducing herself physically and, it seems, existentially: “I am an ugly woman.”) A few rumbles trouble the mood of cozy bibliophilia. Pollux’s niece, Hetta, announces a visit, and she and Tookie have historically butted heads. But the danger quickly subsides: when Hetta appears, it’s with her new, surprise baby in tow, and this “purest creature” effortlessly unites the two women. “The Sentence” is full of amenable dialogue, like “I don’t forgive you. Or I do forgive you. But I’m still pissed.” It’s as if Erdrich is afraid to offend by presenting a vision of racism or rage or grief that’s unvarnished by charm, unbrightened by mischief. The jokes read as tiny mediations.
It’s after the action ticks into February of 2020, approximately halfway through the book, that it becomes clear where Erdrich intends to source her conflict from. A pandemic hits; a man named George Floyd is murdered. The interlocking crises pressurize Tookie’s relationships. She fears for Pollux, and also clashes with him—she has yet to fully process the fact that he once handcuffed her and sent her to prison. Hetta and her friend are teargassed at a protest in Minneapolis. The bookstore strains under quarantine and, while Flora lurks in its aisles, the whole world seems to fog up with ghosts: those killed by COVID-19; the invisible virus itself; previous victims of state violence. “The MPD has fucking done this to Indians since the beginning of this city,” Hetta seethes.
The novel transmutes from an offbeat mystery—why has Flora returned? What does she want?—into a document of the moment. The book’s form becomes more overtly (if surreally) diaristic, with section headings titled “May 25,” “May 28,” “May 32,” “May 34.” In places, it’s as if Erdrich is painting with a reader’s own memories, recursively pleating the confusion of fact and fantasy—how the two seemed to mingle in those months—into her fiction. Tookie, braving the supermarket, notes that “the devastated shelves” suggest “the beginning of every show where . . . some grotesque majestic entity emerges from mist or fire.”
Other swaths of 2020-themed writing feel less convincing. Whether due to affection for her creations or a desire to uplift, Erdrich seems unwilling to raise more than the spectre of true hardship. At one point, a semi truck plows into a group of protesters, but it’s an accident, and “no one was killed, or even hurt.” Racism shadows several characters, but its touch is too often whimsical or weightless, and their responses scan as generic, vague. (The same goes for disease, with a notable exception toward the end, when my favorite character fell ill, by which point I was so worn down by the novel’s fructose content that I prayed in vain for him to die.) Part of the trouble may be the documentary framing, which relieves Erdrich of the need to shape her material: she can throw various hazy scenes together and bind them with the glue of “this is what it was like.” But the book’s more calamitous struggle is with tone. Unlike Erdrich’s short fictions, which have a beguiling strangeness, her novels tend to find their sweet spot in depictions of flawed, sympathetic characters, who earn their happy endings. It’s a register that jostles uncomfortably—at times, fatally—against the fraught subject matter in “The Sentence.”
Consider the easy, self-deprecating charisma that is generally an Erdrichian asset. I lost track of the number of times that characters in “The Sentence” ply each other with homemade pastry, but, in one instance, Tookie recounts, “I set the pan on a rack to cool. Wait, I’m going to say that again because it makes me sound like I know how to bake. I set the pan on a rack to cool.” This cheeky narration, welcome in the context of cookie diplomacy, jars when applied to the furious, exultant experience of watching confrontations between police officers and civilians turn violent. “The rage-champagne and feral glee were foaming out,” Tookie says, describing her headspace as she streams footage from Minneapolis’s Third Precinct. Rage-champagne? The coinage rings false, and placatingly so.
My colleague Vinson Cunningham, reviewing the play “Sanctuary City,” warns of the “deadening topicality” that ripped-from-the-headlines storytelling risks when it loses sight of the human element. “The Sentence” struggles under just this burden, but the book sings when it traces how current events inflect Tookie’s connection to Pollux. Their bond remains the novel’s furnace, and Erdrich’s figuring of it glows with frank, no-holds-barred emotion. It’s in passages about Tookie and Pollux that Erdrich lives up to her reputation as a major American author—passages like this one, in which Tookie parses the political anger that has estranged her from her husband:
Or this one, in which the two are reconciled:
Erdrich’s gifts—an intensity of honesty, a summoning of feeling that exhausts itself, deliriously, in images—are on full display here. The images reverberate because the feelings are true.