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Louise Erdrich’s ‘The Sentence’ Is a Ghost Story and Epitaph for the Covid Shutdown

Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence becomes a way to acknowledge the surrealism that has always pulsated just beneath the surface of American life.

The Sentence
Louise Erdrich
November 2021

In 1973, Gabriel García Márquez, author of masterworks of magical realism such as One Hundred Years of Solitude, told The Atlantic, “In Mexico, surrealism runs through the streets. Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America.” In the aftermath of 2020, in its pandemic, its politics, and its many reckonings, I would lightly update García Márquez: surrealism comes from the reality of America as well.

Louise Erdrich understands. Her most recent novel, The Sentence, might at first seem like a post-pandemic novel since it takes place before and during 2020. As I have previously written about another post-pandemic novel, what can the novelist possibly invent that could compete with the current reality of America itself? Erdrich doesn’t try. Instead, she develops García Márquez’s maxim. Maybe, the novel suggests, the answer is not to outdo reality but to embrace the magic of everyday life, for better and for worse. The Sentence, then, becomes a way to acknowledge the surrealism that has always pulsated just beneath the surface of American life in ways that always have been apparent to its characters—marginalized peoples, close readers of books, and cultural observers—but only broke through to the rest of the population when the surrealism running through the streets could no longer be ignored.   

The surreal life was always clear, for example, to Tookie, the main character of The Sentence. Poor Tookie. She only meant to transport that dead body, not the drugs she didn’t know were taped to its armpits. Moving the corpse was personal, not intentionally criminal. Tookie is a woman who, in the tradition of interesting and maybe unreliable narrators everywhere, understands everyone and everything around her but little about herself. Yet Tookie is, in other ways, entirely reliable. So when a ghost shows up, we don’t worry about Tookie’s mind. We worry about the ghost.

You’d think the plotline about the ghost, the dead body, or the prison sentence—the first of many kinds of sentences—might constitute spoilers. Yet we learn everything (except about the ghost—more on her in a minute) almost immediately. The story begins as a black comedy, but by the end, it reads sincerely and even, in keeping with its growing number of corpses, dead seriously.

Tookie, and the reader, proceed on an unlikely—one might say surreal—ride. In prison, she becomes a voracious reader—her sentence; sentences in her sentence; and this sentence, after receiving the gift of a dictionary: “The first word I looked up was the word ‘sentence’.” She gets a lucky early release, followed by an immediate and surprisingly tender marriage to her arresting officer, Pollux, and a post-prison job in—where else?—a bookstore owned by Louise, a version of the real-life bookstore, Birchbark Books, that Erdrich actually owns in Minneapolis. Plot-wise, all of that could be enough for the whole of The Sentence, a whole slew of sentences, except that the novel has barely gotten started—that was merely a synopsis of just the first chapter.

After another death, the bookstore becomes haunted by a customer with whom Tookie is ambivalent in life but is definitely disenchanted with in death. Tookie is not surprised. “Five days after Flora died, she was still coming to the bookstore. I’m still not strictly rational. How could I be? I sell books.” The haunting becomes another kind of sentence whose term is unclear: the ghost who cannot leave, or Tookie, in her haunting and further punishment.

Again: an ex-con, a haunted bookstore, and a metafictional appearance by Erdrich herself would be enough for a whole novel. At this point, it feels like The Sentence‘s plot has finally taken hold. It has not. From there, each chapter and subsequent section introduces a whole new slew of problems, and a new cast of characters, so that Tookie’s initial crime and punishment, her hasty although happy marriage, and then this ghost story are paused and unpaused and then paused again, to spool more. More story, more sentences, that, taken together, feel like more surrealism.

We learn of a book important to understanding the haunting, also called “The Sentence”, but subtitled “An Indian Captivity”. (Erdrich, the author of Love Medicine and many other novels and books of poetry and the winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, is part Chippewa, as is Tookie.) Pollux’s daughter, Hettie, shows up with her newborn baby and her own existential mystery. There is, improbably, a fight over wild rice, a discussion of the word cacoethes (“the urge to do something somewhat wrong”), more books, haunted books, bookstores, haunted bookstores, haunted people who read books, the possible appearance of a loup-garou (a kind of French werewolf), and, of course, sentences. Before long, we learn that it is now March 2020, and Covid-19 is looming.   

The Sentence‘s structure may sound shambolic, but the events in the story feel narratively logical. The summary sounds like a series of interconnected short stories, but that’s not how the novel feels since the tone and perspective remain assured and consistent. It may even sound picaresque in its episodic adventures. But Tookie doesn’t go anywhere; she is sentenced to her setting.

The novel’s feeling of moving and staying still simultaneously recalls the time indoors it builds toward when the pandemic finally hits. Then, The Sentence becomes even more still, with the story and city taking on their own haunting: “Spectral, uncanny. Deadly, but not. It was terrifying. It was nothing.” For Tookie, like everyone, everything changed, but nothing happened. Surreal.  

And so, after beginning The Sentence with Tookie’s incarceration, the story finds her again sentenced, alternating between sheltering in place and a solitary shift in the bookstore, where the ghost story resumes, only to be paused again by yet another death. George Floyd, the real-life man murdered by the Minneapolis police, becomes another of the novel’s ghosts—this time, metaphorical—haunting Minneapolis and the novel’s final section.

What kind of book, then, is The Sentence? It is a book about books and sentences about sentences, but not in the way one would think. Books help Tookie move forward figuratively when she is sentenced literally. They help her exorcize her ghosts but become their own kind of ghost, chained to the past and the melancholy of memory. The story’s lives and deaths read as tragedy, some bordering on traumatic, yet Tookie is consistently laugh-out-loud funny.

Like Márquez, Erdrich includes elements of what might be called magic or magical realism, but the label feels reductive, incomplete, and even mistaken. The supernatural elements of The Sentence fall well within the threshold of magic that many Americans already believe in—it begins and ends, after all, on All Souls’ Day. (Maybe not the loup-garou, but it’s unclear whether even the characters believe in it anyway.) After all, 2020 was the year when Americans experienced a pandemic and a wave of protest against police violence, and many of us thought we might even banish both. Magical thinking, indeed. One might even call it surreal.   

The Sentence opens with an epigraph from author Sun Yung Shin: “From the time of birth to the time of death, every word you utter is part of one long sentence.” Language provides our prison, our story, and our life. By the end, Tookie learns this. Erdrich knew it all along.