ONEs Louise Erdrich’s new novel begins, her heroine Tookie is sentenced to 60 years in prison for an offense that is as horrific as it is ridiculous. The year is 2005, and although Tookie is in her thirties, “I still cling to the preoccupations and mental habits of a teenager” – drinking and using drugs as if she were still an impulsive young adult. Her friend Danae’s lover, Budgie, has died in the arms of his ex Mara; Danae convinces Tookie to steal a van to retrieve Budgie’s body. The judge who sends her to a Minnesota jail is shocked by her crime; However, Tookie is not surprised by his toughness. “I was on the wrong side of the statistics. Native Americans are the most over-punished people currently incarcerated,” she says.
But in prison, books are her salvation. Even though she’s not allowed to have them, she pulls up a library in her head: “everything from the Redwall books to Huck Finn to Lilith’s Spawn”. When she’s unexpectedly released in 2015 — her sentence commuted thanks to the tireless efforts of her tribe’s defender — it’s perhaps not surprising that she finds a job at a Minneapolis bookstore. And this is where this powerful, endearing novel deviates from its Orange Is the New Black-style opening. It is not Tookie’s incarceration in the cruel American prison system that is the real focus of the book, but her life after her release – a life as ordinary and extraordinary as any other, described with the care and political acumen that Erdrich’s work have always distinguished. and which earned her the Pulitzer Prize for her latest novel, The Night Watchman.
This book was inspired by the life of her own grandfather, tribal leader of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, who campaigned tirelessly in the 1950s against the US government’s “quit” policy that drove Native American tribes off their lands. and sold the property. Over the course of her long and distinguished writing career, beginning with the acclaimed Love Medicine in 1984, Erdrich has mapped Native American life in a way reminiscent of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County: creating a fictional universe that unfolds focused on lived reality and experience. Her books always clash with the politics of the day, and The Sentence has an almost shocking immediacy set against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic and the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, where Erdrich lives.
And Erdrich not only lives there, but also owns a bookstore that is very similar to the store in The Sentence. Birchbark Books describes itself as “a place for Indigirati – educated indigenous peoples who have survived on this continent for over half a millennium”. And so it is with its fictional counterpart. Tookie looks over shelves full of Indigenous history, fiction, memoir and poetry and “realizes that we are more brilliant than I thought”. One of her clients is Flora, a white woman who claims Native American heritage. Tookie calls her “a very stubborn wannabe”: a stalker of all things Indigenous. But when Flora dies suddenly, on November 2nd, All Souls’ Day, “when the stuff between worlds is thin as tissue and tears easily,” her spirit refuses to leave the bookshop. Her ghost haunts Tookie and her associates – and the mystery of her ghostly presence is one of the engines that propels the book as Tookie tries to figure out what drives her between the shelves.
It’s not the only one. The joy of Erdrich’s novels lies in the way their characters live as richly and are as present to the reader as our own friends and relatives. After her life unexpectedly returns to her, Tookie enjoys the mundane: the comforting presence of her husband, Pollux; her strained relationship with her stepdaughter Hetta. But as the novel’s chronology progresses, disaster encroaches upon Tookie’s happy, if haunted, life. A virus in the air is shutting down the world, though it’s making the shop busier than ever, thank goodness. Erdrich captures the dread and queasy pleasure of a suddenly deserted metropolis and life suddenly shut down. Tookie is content in the early months of the pandemic: sure.
But Floyd’s death shatters any sense of security and, in a way, takes the reader back to the beginning of the novel: to a legal system built on injustice and oppression, on the often brutal oppression of blacks and browns. If the second half of the novel feels messier than the first, why not? Erdrich shows the chaos of the moment as it happens, and he does it with amazing grace. “I passed people going about their normal business, planting their gardens, planting flower beds and watering their lawns. I passed an open popcorn shop and stopped to buy popcorn. The popcorn smell changed the smell of old tear gas—sour, musky chalk.” The novel resolves into small moments of personal redemption and familial love, and finds hope in the midst of tragedy.
Tookie’s courage and passion carry us; She is consistently a loyal companion, facing difficulties and self-aware of her own good fortune. “I live the way a person lives who has stopped fearing the daily ration of time,” she says—a motto we should live by if we can.
The Sentence is published by Corsair (£20). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping costs may apply.