Written by Louise Erdrich, this is the story of Tookie, a Native American woman from the Ojibwe tribe who has just been released from prison (She was set up! It wasn’t her fault!) and gets a job at Birchbark Books in Minneapolis. This isn’t any old bookstore. It’s the one that is owned (in real life) by Louise Erdrich. Adding to the fun, Louise herself is one of the minor characters in the novel. Tookie spent her years in prison reading “with murderous attention,” and she is a wonderful addition to the staff. Tell her the kind of book you want to read, and Tookie can name a title or 10.
The book takes place from All Souls’ Day 2019 to All Souls’ Day 2020. Flora, who was white and one of the bookstore’s best but also most difficult customers, dies. And then something odd begins to happen on All Souls’ Day 2019. Tookie realizes that Flora’s ghost is haunting the bookstore. Tookie and the other employees hear Flora shuffling through the store, her bracelets clicking and clacking as books mysteriously fall off the shelves, and paper towels in the bathroom are scattered. It isn’t long before things turn more sinister as Tookie fears Flora is trying to possess her. Meanwhile, Tookie’s stepdaughter arrives on their doorstep in late December with a newborn baby and an eyepopping story she doesn’t want her father to know.
And then the story does a sudden, but incredible shift, with the advent of Covid and those scary first months of the virus when we didn’t know much about it, including how it was spread. Just as they’re getting used to wearing masks and spritzing hand sanitizer all day long, George Floyd is murdered by a Minneapolis police officer. Protests and violence follow. This is possibly the best part of the book as it fully personifies those tragic, horror-filled weeks, putting the reader in the heart of those protests in a way that transcends news stories and just feels so real, poignant, important, and scary.
What turns this into a literary novel (besides the fact that it’s written by Louise Erdrich, which is enough) is the multiple symbolic meanings of the title: “The Sentence.” Woven throughout the story are specific references to “the sentence,” and they are different. It’s fun to keep track.
This is a story of and for our times. It is a novel about everything that can haunt us—not just ghosts—and all the ways the people we love are the ones who exorcise those hauntings so we can keep living our lives.
Bonus: Dozens of titles are mentioned throughout the story, and Erdrich has helpfully assembled them and many other into several wonderful lists at the end of the book. Get ready to add to your TBR list!