From Portside Culture <[email protected]>
Subject Save By Books
Date January 27, 2022 2:30 AM
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[A Native American rebuilds her life after a prison sentence in
this powerfully topical novel from the Pulitzer winner.]
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SAVE BY BOOKS   [[link removed]]


Erica Wagner
January 22, 2022
The Guardian
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_ A Native American rebuilds her life after a prison sentence in this
powerfully topical novel from the Pulitzer winner. _



_The Sentence_
by Louise Erdrich
ISBN: 9780062671127

As Louise Erdrich’s new novel begins, her heroine, Tookie, has been
sentenced to 60 years in prison for an offence both horrible and
ridiculous. It’s 2005, and though Tookie is in her 30s, “I still
clung to a teenager’s pursuits and mental habits” – drinking and
drugging as though she is still an impulsive young adult. Her friend
Danae’s lover Budgie has died in the arms of his ex, Mara; Danae
persuades Tookie to steal a delivery truck in order to snatch
Budgie’s body back. The judge who sends her away to a Minnesota jail
is shocked by her crime; Tookie, however, is not surprised by his
harshness. “I was on the wrong side of the statistics. Native
Americans are the most oversentenced people
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currently imprisoned,” she says.

But while in prison, books are her salvation. Even when she is not
permitted to have them, she calls up a library in her head:
“everything from the Redwall books to Huck Finn to Lilith’s
Brood”. So when she is unexpectedly released in 2015 – her
sentence commuted thanks to the tireless efforts of her tribe’s
defence lawyer – it is perhaps unsurprising that she finds a job in
a Minneapolis bookshop. And here this powerful, endearing novel takes
a swerve from its Orange Is the New Black
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opening. It is not Tookie’s term in the savage American carceral
system that is the true focus of the book, but her life after her
release – a life as ordinary and extraordinary as any, delineated
with the care and political acumen that have always distinguished
Erdrich’s work, and which won her the Pulitzer prize for her last
novel, The Night Watchman.

That book was inspired by the life of her own grandfather, tribal
chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, who in the 1950s
campaigned tirelessly against the US government’s policy of
“termination”, through which Native American tribes would be moved
off their land, and the land sold. Over the course of her long and
distinguished writing career, beginning with the acclaimed Love
Medicine in 1984, Erdrich has charted Indigenous lives in the US in a
manner that recalls William Faulkner
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Yoknapatawpha County: the creation of a fictional universe centred in
lived reality and experience. Her books always run right up against
the politics of the present, and The Sentence has an almost shocking
immediacy, set as it is against the background of the Covid-19
pandemic and the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis
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where Erdrich lives.

And Erdrich not only lives there, but also owns a bookstore very
similar to the shop in The Sentence. Birchbark Books
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Indigirati – literate Indigenous people who have survived over half
a millennium on this continent”. And so it is with its fictional
counterpart. Tookie looks over shelves filled with Indigenous history,
fiction, memoir and poetry and “realised we are more brilliant than
I knew”. One of their customers is Flora, a white woman who claims
Native heritage. Tookie calls her “a very persistent wannabe”: a
stalker of all things Indigenous. But when Flora dies suddenly, on 2
November, All Souls’ Day, “when the fabric between the worlds is
thin as tissue and easily torn”, her ghost refuses to leave the
bookshop. Her spirit haunts Tookie and her co-workers – and the
mystery of her spirit presence is one of the motors that drives the
book, as Tookie seeks to discover what keeps her drifting among the

It’s not the only one. The joy of Erdrich’s novels lies in the way
her characters live so richly, and are as present to the reader as our
own friends and relatives are. Having had her life unexpectedly
returned to her, Tookie savours the quotidian: the comforting presence
of her husband, Pollux; her prickly relationship with her
stepdaughter, Hetta. But as the novel’s chronology moves forward,
catastrophe intrudes into Tookie’s happy if haunted life. An
airborne virus closes the world down, though it makes the shop busier
than ever, thank goodness. Erdrich captures the fear and the queasy
pleasure of a suddenly deserted metropolis and a suddenly closed-down
life. Tookie is content during the early months of the pandemic: safe.

But Floyd’s death blasts apart any sense of safety, and in a sense
takes the reader back to the novel’s beginning: to a legal system
built on injustice and oppression, on the often brutal repression of
Black and brown people. If the second half of the novel feels more
chaotic than the first, why wouldn’t it? Erdrich is displaying the
chaos of the moment as it occurs, and does so with astonishing grace.
“I passed people going about their normal business, planting their
gardens, flower beds, watering their lawns. I passed a popcorn store
that was open and I stopped to buy popcorn. The popcorn smell modified
the smell of old tear gas – sour, musky chalk.” The novel resolves
in small moments of personal redemption and familial love, allowing
for hope amid tragedy.

Tookie’s courage and passion carry us; she is, throughout, a
stalwart companion, facing hardship and aware of her own good fortune.
“I live the way a person does who has ceased to dread each day’s
ration of time,” she says – a motto to go by, surely, if we can.


Erica Wagner is the author of _Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath
and the Story of Birthday Letters_.

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