The Sentence by Louise Erdrich (Literary Fiction / Multi-cultural)

A Minneapolis bookstore is haunted by its most annoying (and recently deceased) patron. It’s not just any bookstore — it’s Birchbark Books — the very real bookstore owned by none other but the author herself who makes cameo appearances in the story. Tookie — a large, Native American woman who took up reading with a passion while serving a long prison sentence — is our narrator. Tookie is wonderful — she keeps her “to read” pile next to her bed in two stacks: the Lazy Stack and the Hard Stack — my kind of woman. The haunting story takes place while Minneapolis suffers first from Covid and then from being ground zero for the aftermath of the George Floyd killing.

It’s a tender, multi-faceted story with characters that are so real, so nuanced, and so vibrant it made me cry to know that I would never actually be able to meet them. Absolutely beautiful writing as always — see the quote sampler at the end. Louise Erdrich has gone from “never read because too depressing” to “favorite author” in the last year or two. I loved LaRose, I really loved The Night Watchman, and now I have fallen in love with her latest — The Sentence. By the way, I loved her use of the word “sentence” with multiple meanings, both literary and punitive.

The story follows personal lives through these bigger events — their fears, perspectives (not all predictable), frustrations, and actions — the impact on relationships. The long buried hurts that emerge at inconvenient times. The scenes in the bookstore with vignettes on various customers — their needs, conversation, and frequent crankiness — are priceless. Lots of great book references and lists interspersed — I was happy to find new authors (and I read a lot — this doesn’t happen to me very often). As always, plenty of historical and current information on Native Americans including (as an example) the statistic that Native Americans are the most oversentenced people currently imprisoned). The bookstore employs a great number of “indigerati” — a term I believe Erdrich coined because I can’t find it anywhere else — I love it!

One warning — reading the first chapter I thought this was going to be a very different kind of book, and I wasn’t thrilled. Once you get to chapter two everything works better (for me).

Quotes:

“Native Americans are the most over-sentenced people currently imprisoned. I love statistics because they place what happens to a scrap of humanity, like me, on a worldwide scale.”

“Pen is one of a mass of young Native people who have book-crushes and rich book life, a true Indigerati.”

“Actually, Penstemon is desperately romantic, deeply tied to her traditions, and I worry for her paper heart.”

“Sometimes she worked on the collage after plane trips, claiming that in hurtling through the stratosphere she’d lost brain cells. he couldn’t shake the conviction that pieces of her mind were scattered about in the sky.” When she came down to earth, she had the urge to glue things together.”

“Once free, I found that I could not read just any book. It had gotten so I could see through books — the little ruses, the hooks, the setup in the beginning, the looming weight of a tragic ending. I needed the writing to have a certain mineral density. It had to feel naturally meant, but not cynically contrived. I grew to dislike manipulations.”

“And so we sat there. Two haunted women. And one unhaunted baby trailing clouds of glory.”

“I put my hand on my chest and closed my eyes. I have a dinosaur heart, cold, massive, indestructible, a thick meaty red. And I have a glass heart, tiny and pink, that can be shattered. The glass heart belongs to Pollux. There was a ping. To my surprise, it had developed a minute crack, nearly invisible. But it was there, and it hurt.”

“The thing is, most of us Indiginous people do have to consciously pull together our identities. We’ve endured centuries of being erased and sentenced to live in a replacement culture. So even someone raised strictly in their own tradition gets pulled toward white perspectives.”

Thank you to Harper and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on November 9th, 2021.

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich (Literary Fiction / Multi cultural)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 5

I’m grasping for words to express how much I loved this book but all the good words — profound, brilliant, amazing, etc. — have been rendered meaningless through overuse. So just think about what they used to mean and apply here.

The novel is based on the experiences of Erdrich’s grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, in his determined fight against the proposed termination of his Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa named in House Concurrent Resolution 108 passed in August of 1953. Gourneau is fictionalized as Thomas Wazhashk.

While that is the overarching plot line, the story is told as a set of short chapters from various character viewpoints. While the termination fight touches everyone, much of the content covers the progression of individual lives in the community. Pixie Paranteau supports her family with earnings from a job at the new jewel bearing plant; her sister, Vera, has disappeared in the Cities and has been caught in the underbelly of the beast; Wood Mountain is becoming a top boxer, training with Barnes, a local white coach with eyes glued on Pixie; Millie Cloud is in Minneapolis and has authored a study of her father’s reservation which will be useful in the fight against termination; and Thomas spends his nights as the Night Watchman at the plant — struggling to stay awake by writing letters using the Palmer Method ingrained in him at the Indian boarding school. Other characters are ghostly visitors, Mormon missionaries, and various officials from the BIA, congress, and tribal councils.

Erdrich’s characters are wonderful — each one an individual that defies stereotype; each one full of complexities that never descend into entertaining “quirks.” In contrast, we do see the usual stereotypes through the perspective of others — in Barne’s memory of the “luscious” Indian girls depicted in ads and earnest lectures given by the missionaries, for example.

What I love most about this book is Erdrich’s articulation of the feelings, perspectives, and philosophies of the various characters. Thomas, in his desperation to leverage every possible angle available to him reads the Book of Mormon to better understand the bill’s author — Arthur V. Watkins — a staunch Mormon. He has discussions with Barnes about why Indians can’t / don’t want to become “regular” Americans and why Barnes could never “become” an Indian. He is immensely philosophical, and we are treated to his thinking, his process, and his growing understanding of life and his part of this world. Every chapter is full of enlightening description and presence.

This is the best book I’ve read in a long time and by far my favorite Erdrich book. The Pulitzer committee definitely got it right this time.

Some quotes:
“This termination bill. Arthur V. Watkins believed it was for the best. To uplift them. Even open the gates of heaven. How could Indians hold themselves apart, when the vanquishers sometimes held their arms out, to crush them to their hearts, with something like love?”

“Thomas was convinced that he’d destroyed their chances. He couldn’t point out exactly how he’d done it, but he knew. And the other thing. The senator had also asked every single Indian person who testified about their degree of Indian blood. The funny thing was, nobody knew exactly.”

“Especially Senator Watkins. The word supercilious. That was the word for every detail. Watkins’ coin-purse mouth. His self-righteous ease. The way he held himself, giving off that vibration. Filling the air with sanctimony. Another word that flung itself into her mind.”

“She was inhabited by a vengeful, roiling, even murderous spirit. The same spirit had hatched the bird that pecked Bucky’s face. When she got home, she’d clean up the sweat lodge and ask her mother to help her get rid of these thoughts.”

“All were cast together onto allotments, to break apart the earth, to learn the value of a dollar, and then how to make one dollar into many dollars and cultivate the dollar into a way of life.”

“His father was so very old now that he slept most of the day. He was ninety-four. When Thomas thought of his father, peace stole across his chest and covered him like sunlight.”

“To most of their neighbors, Indians were people who suffered and hid away in shabby dwellings or roamed the streets in flagrant drunkenness and shame. Except the good ones. There was always “a good Indian” that someone knew.”

“For days. he’d tried to make sense of the papers, to absorb their meaning. To define their unbelievable intent. Unbelievable because the unthinkable was couched in such innocuous dry language. Unbelievable because the intent was, finally, to unmake, to unrecognize. To erase as Indians him, Biboon, Rose, his children, his people, all of us invisible and as if we never were here, from the beginning, here.”

“Emancipation. This word would not stop banging around in his head. Emancipated. But they were not enslaved. Freed from being Indians was the idea. Emancipated from their land. Freed from the treaties that Thomas’s father and grandfather had signed and that were promised to last forever. So as usual, by getting rid of us, the Indian problem would be solved.”

“He wasn’t one for giving names to things. Or finding their basis. His feelings were like weather. He just suffered or enjoyed them.”

“He felt it coming. Wanted to duck. Winced. A sensation like when he was chastised at school gripped him. Like when he went into a bank or bought something expensive in an off-reservation town. Their looks pressing down on him. Their words flattening him. Their eyes squeezing him. Isey, for shame. As his mother used to say. But it was so much worse in English, the word shame.” It made him curdle inside. And the curdling became something hard in his stomach. Or a thought that stabbed so hard he might cast it out in a flare of anger. Or it might stay in there hardening even further until it flew up to his brain and killed him.”