How happy I am that the first book I read in the new year was so good. So very good. A book the calibre of The Sentence by Louise Erdrich sets a tone of excellence for the rest of the year.
The basic story, -as if it were possible to confine the plot to the word “basic”- is that a bookstore employee who had been in prison, convicted for stealing a body, is haunted by the ghost of a former customer. The bookstore is modeled after Birchbark Books (one of my favorite independent bookstores) owned by the author, and the setting for the book is mainly Minneapolis from 2019-2020, which means the murder of George Floyd and the pandemic are part of the book’s context and action.
The sentence refers to the prison sentence of the main character, Tookie, a Native American woman, but also sentences in books and beyond that, one’s life sentence. The book’s epigraph gives a hint of the complexity to follow: “From the time of birth to the time of death, every word you utter is part of one long sentence.” Sun Young Shin, Unbearable Splendor. I kept returning to that quotation as I moved further into the book.
I apologize to anyone who reads my copy of the book, for I underlined so much and many little post-it notes are flapping on the book’s edges.
…this dimming season sharpens one. The trees are bare. Spirits stir in the stripped branches. November supposedly renders thin the veil. p. 41
Think how white people believe their houses or yards or scenic overlooks are haunted by Indians, when it’s really the opposite. We’re haunted by settlers and their descendants. We’re haunted by the Army Medical Museum and countless natural history museums and small town museums who still have unclaimed bones in their collections…p. 81
When everything big is out of control, you start taking charge of small things. p. 202
I keep thinking about this perspective about forgiveness–forgiving one’s self and forgiving others.
You can’t get over things you do to other people as easily as you get over things they do to you. p.358
I could go on, but I prefer that you buy your own copy and mark your own favorite lines and passages. One more thing: I hope I never again use the phrase “the calvary’s coming,” for one of the characters says that phrase is really a reference to genocide. Think about it.
And yet one more thing: I know I am an old lady who has not kept up with all the abbreviations used in texts, but I was not familiar with DWW–Disturbed While Writing. Now that is one I will remember and probably use!
I promise this is the last thing. Several reviews have described this book as “wickedly funny,” and it is, but it is also deeply disquieting and seriously absorbing.
An Invitation: What is your first book of 2022? I would love to know.