book review

The Sentence Shows the Downside of Urgency

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Publisher

A casual consumer of U.S. popular culture could assume Native Americans were extinct. Save some recent wins, like the Hulu series Reservation Dogs, Indigenous people have more often appeared in the American imaginary as relics of a conveniently distant past. In horror movies, the trope of the Indian burial ground is deployed as a threat to the fantasy of white suburban innocence. In the 1960s, countercultural movements adopted Native American dress and customs like peyote as markers of pre-industrial, pre-urbane simplicity. This remove is by design. As the essayist Richard Rodriguez put it in Days of Obligation, “Indians must be ghosts,” for “Indians represented permanence and continuity to Americans who were determined to call this country new.” It’s not uncommon for Americans to claim Indigenous ancestry, often with no more evidence than a great-great-grandparent with “high cheekbones” — an epidemic of self-identification that some Indigenous scholars have called “Cherokee syndrome.” Time and distance are key here: They allow for the distinction between native and settler to be collapsed, while preserving as much racial purity as possible.

This society-wide denial that indigeneity is an active living thing is what animates my anxiety as I read Louise Erdrich’s novel The Sentence, the setting of which is a Native American bookstore in a Minneapolis reeling from the pandemic and the murder of local resident George Floyd. You could read this immediacy as an act of defiance. So am I out of line for finding the book too current, for wishing it had put some distance between itself and the events of the last year?

The Sentence begins in pre-pandemic days, with the story of a Chippewa bookseller named Tookie who is being haunted by the ghost of a recently deceased customer: Flora, a white woman whom Tookie calls a “wannabee,” and who toted around a black-and-white photograph of an allegedly Native American ancestor for so long that she lost herself in an “earnest, unaccountable, persistent, self-obliterating delusion.” This is a type that Erdrich briefly and incisively skewered in her 2020 masterpiece The Night Watchman, and the prospect that we would get her fleshed-out take on the white psychodrama of racial forgery — couched within a ghost story, and just in time for spooky season — was too exciting to be believed. The first half of the novel is signature Erdrich and then some: righteously funny, magically eclectic, and refreshing in its moral clarity. But then 2020 happened, swelling up the book’s back half with scenes inspired by the pandemic, from its most mundane, panic-shopping details to its twin inflection point: the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer. Erdrich’s treatment of these moments reads as undigested. It reveals an author who believed — as many wanted to — that some seismic shift in race relations could not help but be underway.

The word “urgent” is a favorite of book blurbers and reviewers. The Sentence has me rethinking its value. Along with Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart and Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney, Erdrich’s new novel marks one of the first major works of contemporary fiction to use the pandemic and its satellite catastrophes as a setting. Shteyngart, like Boccaccio before him, uses pestilence as story frame straight away, whereas Erdrich lets us watch as it infects every cell of her pre-established narrative, with mixed results. Her book proposes that it’s time to consider how the events of the past year and a half will haunt us, but this crisis is not yet a ghost. It’s not even on its last legs.

Like any story begging for an option, The Sentence opens with a dead body. Our narrator, Tookie, has served ten years in prison for moving the corpse of her friend’s lover, a man we never meet alive named Budgie. There are extenuating circumstances involving a fruit truck, rainbow duct tape, and crack, but what ultimately incenses the judge is Tookie’s seeming disregard for the body itself. He doles out a sentence of 60 years. This seems extreme, but Tookie explains to the reader, “Native American are the most over-sentenced people currently imprisoned.” (Given the scant attention that Native Americans get in most conversations about mass incarceration, a little didactic prose can be forgiven.) In prison, Tookie is haunted by Budgie’s ghost; she hears him “hissing through his rotten teeth.” She finds refuge — from her sentence, from Budgie’s teeth, and maybe also from her own guilt — in the prison library, where she becomes a bibliophile. “The most important skill I gained in prison,” she jokes, “was how to read with murderous attention.”

This serves her well on the outside. After her sentence is commuted, she looks for work at Birchbark Books, a fictionalized version of Erdrich’s own real-life bookstore in Minneapolis, which specializes in books by and about Indigenous people. During her job interview with none other than author and proprietor Louise, Tookie, dressed in all black with a bandana and a nose ring, asks: “Who would dare not buy a book from me?” She gets the gig. The bookstore setting is intriguing. Although Erdrich sometimes falls into saccharine narratives about people who love to read, she also gets to make some well-placed jokes about autofiction and give us a backdoor peek at herself, in critic mode. For instance, on Ferrante, Tookie says: “Besides the repetitive language, my problem with (my now beloved) Elena Ferrante was her use of the winking cliff-hanger.”

Now married to her longtime crush, Pollux — the same tribal officer who arrested her — and gainfully employed, Tookie cannot believe her luck. Enter the ghost. Tookie is not entirely surprised to see Flora again. “She would haunt the store,” she thinks to herself. Or, as her co-worker puts it: “I shouldn’t be surprised that she won’t leave us alone even now. That’s entitlement for you.” The subject of racial appropriation is something Erdrich, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, has written about before. In The Night Watchman, Erdrich offered a sweeping and tender portrait of the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation of North Dakota in the 1950s and the community’s fight to preserve their land against federal termination policies. At one point in the novel, which was inspired by Erdrich’s grandfather’s experiences, a white male teacher at one of the reservation schools asks the titular character, Thomas, if it’s possible to become Native American through marriage. Thomas, who is Chippewa, is perturbed by this: “He resisted the idea that his endless work, the warmth of his family, and this identity that got him followed in stores and ejected from restaurants and movies, this way he was, for good or bad, was just another thing for a white man to acquire.”

That acquisition is literalized in the context of the bookstore. It attracts affluent white Minnesotans like Flora who want to forge a connection while still feeling like they are in control, because they are there to buy things. In death, Flora raises the ante. If, per Rodriguez, “Indians must be ghosts,” then Flora has now achieved a kind of self-actualization. Settlers are famously insatiable, and Flora, in spirit form, can possess in ways previously unavailable to her. Alone at the bookstore, Tookie hears someone whisper in her ear: “Let me in.” As the book moves deeper into fictionalizing 2020, though, Flora’s ghost starts to feel like a sideshow. COVID first enters the picture in the context of a book tour for fictional Louise, her daughters getting anxious as people crowd around her at a local reading. Yet it is the protests for racial justice that really give The Sentence its urgency, for better and for worse.

Derek Chauvin murdered Floyd just five miles from Birchbark Books, and Erdrich provides a kind of window into how the subsequent uprising impacted the Twin Cities’ Native American community. Her characters are almost uniformly in line with the goals of the BLM movement, seeing their own underreported encounters with police brutality reflected in the experiences of Black Americans. Save for Tookie’s ex-tribal officer husband — who complains about property destruction and propagates the outside-agitator theory — we see little friction between the two communities, even when a Native American nonprofit is burned by an errant amber. This felt like a missed opportunity to reckon with the fissures that do exist, including disputes over Black claims to Native ancestry and tensions with Somali immigrants in Minneapolis specifically. Instead we get speeches like this one from Flora’s Native American step-daughter, which make solidarity seem so simple: “We have to stand with Black people because we know. The MPD has fucking done this to Indians since the beginning of this city. No, before that. They practiced on us in the Dakota War and ever since.”

The introduction of “a novel virus” comes across — much as it did in real life — as a record scratch on the page, a departure from the borderline-twee haunted-bookstore story. The same is true of the protests, but Erdrich’s characters are keen to remind us that this is all related. In mass incarceration and police brutality, Tookie and her supporting cast observe, America is being “haunted” by its original sin of Native dispossession and violent removal, just like Birchbark Books is being haunted by Flora. The Sentence made me wonder if this metaphor might be too capacious for its own good. When Tookie tells a customer that the store has been saddled with Flora’s ghost, he throws back: “This whole city is haunted” — and begins discussing redlining and the ongoing legacy of housing discrimination. I hesitate to complain about moments like this in a country so stubbornly committed to ignorance. Still, I found myself cringing and confused that “history repeats itself” was being presented as a fresh take, begging for the unhinged white-lady ghost to come back and start throwing more contemporary fiction across the room.

It is worth recalling that 2020 was a big year for books, and minority-owned bookstores especially. In the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests, orders for How to Be an Antiracist and similar titles outpaced supply, with some white customers getting … testy. In many ways, Erdrich’s position at the real-life Birchbark Books gave her a sneak peek at the desire for literary absolution. In the book she describes the business as a magnet for wealthy Minnesotans, who all come with their stories: “As a child they slept in a tipi made of blankets, fought cowboys, tied a sister to a tree.” The first half of the novel does not simply meet these types with delicious snark (though it does that too); in Flora, Erdrich treats the extremes to which white people will go to process their guilt as the stuff of nightmares. The Sentence starts off determined to get to the bottom of this centuries-long pathology, before it diverts to scratch the surface of recent events.

Ultimately, the problem with The Sentence is not that it is set in 2020, but rather that it’s permeated by the false optimism that emerged in the face of multiracial protests, with feel-good resolutions and simplistic narratives about solidarity. No one who joined the marches last summer can deny that it did feel like we were on the verge of something, and Erdrich’s novel, particularly its conclusion, is fused with that confidence. However, by September 2020, Minneapolis city-council officials were already backtracking on commitments to defund the police, with one saying he only agreed to the pledge “in spirit.” Earlier this year, a study by political scientists Jennifer Chudy and Hakeem Jefferson found that support among white Americans for BLM did not merely recede to pre-2020 levels, but actually turned into more pronounced opposition. These letdowns are precisely what make The Sentence feel dated. I too wish that the sense of possibility palpable in the air last summer could come back and haunt us. Because the alternative is truly scary.

The Sentence Shows the Downside of Urgency