The Sentence Louise Erdrich Harper, 2021
Louise Erdrich’s latest novel is a work of nested stories and messages, a compound sentence with braided subordinate clauses and ellipses and declamations in em dashes. It can be read as a love letter to the book world — and, indeed, it is hard to close the book and not have a long list of further reading (even for a former bookseller!). Her Dissatisfaction is a character I know and love well. (Only my Dissatisfaction was a precocious pre-teen boy, thus adding a bit of a challenge in keeping him in age-appropriate stimulation.) Her booksellers are familiarly discerning bookworms, though all rich in particularity. Further, this portrayal of a life interpenetrated with books is what I would wish for as a biography when I am haunting others.
The Sentence is also a tale of love and the struggle to be what our loves desire and yet be ourselves. Tookie begins her involuntary sojourn for love. When she turns her page, she falls into a love that weathers even acute betrayal through learning to truly see her story through Pollux’s perspective — something that few of us ever achieve. The young book clerks are, of course, regularly cycling through romances, but not in a junk food manner. They aren’t interested in roses and scintillation as much as relationship and compatibility. They’re seeking something durable that won’t erase their own dreams and concerns. And then, the whole cast is involved in a deep love affair with narrative, myth, words, history — The Sentence becomes a paean to all the ways we tell ourselves our stories.
The Sentence is, of course, about Tookie’s incarceration and the unfathomable mark that experience left on her. But it is also the imprisonment of living with a parent addict, of immuring loss and grief and abandonment, of the cages we make for ourselves through rash decisions and the black holes we back ourselves into when we’re not paying attention to life. It is, furthermore, the title of a book within the book, a book on horrifying captivity, a book that contains a sentence with the power to disintegrate lives, perhaps even kill. Most importantly, The Sentence is the death sentence dealt to George Floyd that is the miniature of the judgement pronounced and imposed on Natives — and all those who are not “normal people” — and their cultures.
I can’t breathe.
It is a book of hauntings and our spectral relationship with the past and the future. We are all haunted. There are surprise doorways, like the bookstore confessional, that we trip through, finding ourselves in rooms of regret and fear, where solidity and insubstantiality trade places until we can finally work our way back out. And the trick is not to close the door, but to leave it thrown wide. But I’m not sure that the fact of the haunting is as important to Erdrich’s story as is the relationship to haunting.
There is much made of Flora in the various blurbs and reviews about this book. I thought I was in for a ghost story. Which would have been fine; I like a nice complex tale of ghosts. I think we all have ghosts we need to exorcise, and narratives of hauntings do offer helpful tips and advice. But The Sentence is much more than a tale of a peculiar ghost. Tookie recognizes that she was haunted long before Flora dies, before the book is opened, actually. What I think this book is about in its essence is communication, connection, belonging — and its crushing inverse, the horror of isolation and erasure. It is the incubus poison of power relationships in this country that creates difference and then demands that these newly minted Others give up their lives to become incarcerated ghosts.
While wrestling with her dark night of the soul, Tookie asks herself to define the actual ghost that she fears, and she answers:
To be locked away. To be forgotten by normal people. To be subject, to be ruled, to be watched, to be the one to eat the left-overs of a thriving nation.
Flora is merely an annoying poltergeist when compared to the fear of not being Tookie — or of being Tookie and finding that Tookie is nothing at all substantial. Or seen. Or remembered. Or wanted.
I think we all have the same ghost, though the impressions left on each of us depend upon the spaces we inhabit. Some of us are occluded by these hauntings. Some merely sense a grey unease that has no discernible shape. But then, in The Sentence, as in life, the bright light of disaster strikes and illuminates all the pallid specters.
The murder of George Floyd forces us all to confront our hauntings and our hand in creating these ghosts. Each of Erdrich’s characters becomes solid and visible through their individual responses to the murder. And, as this is a story of COVID times, Erdrich uses illness and death to re-member relationship — in Tookie’s case, to rebuild her love and redefine her life. To escape the confessional box and to put Flora, among other ghosts, to rest.
“He’s breathing on his own” is a beautiful sentence. But the most radically ravishing sentence of all?
The door is open. Go.
What else needs to be written…
©Elizabeth Anker 2022