The sentence discussion: Louise Erdrich asks what we owe the dead


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Louise Erdrichs The sentenceThe Vox Book Club‘s Choice for February is a novel about how we treat our dead.

It’s also about a lot of other things: the pandemic and life as a Native American and the prison state and maybe especially books. But what strikes me the most The sentencehere, as we prepare to enter the third year of the Covid-19 pandemic, surrounded by losses, is how much time it devotes to asking what we owe the dead and whether we have failed to deliver.

For our protagonist Tookie, desecration of a body is her original sin. She wraps a dead man in a tarp, ties his jaw with a silk handkerchief, and puts him in a refrigerator truck to take him away from his lover, all at the behest of her own crush. The scene is attractively twisted, like an Edward Gorey heist film, but it carries weight. Tookie’s crush tricked her: she didn’t want Tookie to steal a body out of sheer sentimentality, but to smuggle drugs across state lines. Tookie didn’t know this, but she still faces 60 years in prison if caught. And later, when she’s haunted by a ghost, she suspects she might have it because of what she’s done before.

After all, wouldn’t a ghost, Tookie asks her husband, “visit people like me? … people dishonoring the dead.”

Tookie isn’t the only one who doesn’t give the dead justice in this book, though. As Erdrich is quick to point out, in America this has traditionally been the domain of white people. After Tookie’s sentence is commuted and she finds a job at a bookstore specializing in Native literature, she finds that white people keep coming to her and her colleagues to tell them the story of the time she found a Native American skeleton on her found land and kept it under their beds. One of Tookie’s associates, a historian, tells her stories of white doctors who robbed Indian graves in the 19th century.

“Imagine white people believing that their homes, yards, or scenic overlooks are being invaded by Native Americans when the opposite is true,” says the historian. “We are haunted by settlers and their descendants.”

The haunting of Tookie’s life is literally expressed in the personality of Flora, who was one of Tookie’s most annoying bookstore customers in her lifetime. Tookie describes Flora as a “stalker – indigenous people of all things” or as a “very persistent wannabe”. She is a white woman fixated on Aboriginal culture and claims to have been Indian in a past life or to have an indigenous heritage that her family is covering up. Annoyingly, Flora also does a lot of good things for the Minneapolis Native community — fundraising, volunteering, nurturing Native American teenage runaways — so Tookie feels compelled not to call her out for her hyperbole.

But in death, as in life, Flora never knows when to retire. After being mysteriously found dead in her bed with a stolen 19th-century Indian tale beside her, her ghost appears in Tookie’s bookshop, all her silk shirts and many bracelets rustling behind Tokie’s shoulder, just out of sight. And as the pandemic sweeps across America and the bookstore is forced to transform into a mail order business, Flora’s presence becomes far more persistent, even malevolent. She refuses to be ignored.

However, the most surprising and beautiful thing about this story arc is how sweet its resolution is. (Here’s your spoiler alert.) What it takes to get rid of Flora in the end isn’t an exorcism or anything hostile. It’s recognition. Flora must face the fact that her ancestors were involved in genocide, exploitation and torture, that she is neither innocent nor secretly oppressed, although the shock of this realization killed her. And Tookie must face the good that Flora has done, must thank her for saving Tookie’s own life.

That, ultimately, seems to be what we owe the dead in this book: acknowledgment of both their sins and virtues, respect for their bodies, and freedom for their spirits to go in peace.

Share your thoughts The sentence in the comments below and Be sure to register for our upcoming live discussion event with Louise Erdrich. In the meantime, subscribe to the Vox Book Club newsletter so you don’t miss anything.

Discussion Questions

  1. What do you think we owe the dead?
  2. Erdrich makes a cameo appearance in this book! She is the owner of the shop where Tookie works, which bears a striking resemblance to Erdrich’s real life bookshop, Birchbark Books. How does your appearance here affect you?
  3. We’re in the midst of the first wave of pandemic novels, and more are likely to follow as time goes on. What do you think about this one?
  4. The sentence fluctuates wildly between emotional tones. Tookie’s stealing Budgie’s body is very wacky and fun, and then her early days in the bookstore are settled and low-key and slice-of-life-esque. As Erdrich gets caught up in the pandemic and the protests over the murder of George Floyd, she writes something like narrative non-fiction. For me, the shifting tones work because of the lightness of Erdrich’s touch. What did you think?
  5. We love a book that has its own curriculum. Have you read any of the recommended books at the end? What did you think?
  6. What would be on your personal Ghostbusting playlist?

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