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In The Sentence, Louise Erdrich asks what we owe the dead

The Pulitzer Prize winner’s latest sees Indians haunted by the ghosts of vengeful white people.

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The Sentence by Louise Erdrich.
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

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Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence, the Vox Book Club’s pick for February, is a novel about how we treat our dead.

It’s about a lot of other things, too: the pandemic, and being a Native person in America, and the carceral state, and perhaps especially books. But what strikes me the most about The Sentence, here as we prepare to enter the third year of the Covid-19 pandemic, surrounded by loss, is how much time it devotes to the question of what we owe the dead, and whether we have failed to deliver.

For our protagonist Tookie, desecrating a body is her original sin. She wraps a dead man up in a tarpaulin, ties his jaw with a silk scarf, and sticks him in a refrigerated produce truck to steal him away from his lover, all at the behest of her own crush. The scene is appealingly screwball, like a heist movie by way of Edward Gorey, but it carries weight. Tookie’s crush set her up: She didn’t want Tookie to steal a body out of pure sentiment, but as a way to smuggle drugs across state lines. Tookie didn’t know that, but she’s still sentenced to 60 years in jail when she’s caught. And later, when she’s haunted by a ghost, she suspects she might have it coming because of what she did before.

After all, wouldn’t a ghost, Tookie asks her husband, want to visit “people like me? … People who dishonor the dead.”

Tookie is not, though, the only one who fails to offer the dead their due in this book. As Erdrich is quick to make clear, in America, that’s traditionally the province of white people. After Tookie’s sentence is commuted and she finds a job working at a bookstore specializing in Native literature, she finds that white people keep rushing up to her and her co-workers to tell them the story of the time they found an Indian skeleton on their land and kept it under their beds. One of Tookie’s co-workers, a historian, tells her stories of 19th-century white doctors who robbed Indian graves.

“Think how white people believe their houses or yards or scenic overlooks are haunted by Indians, when it’s really the opposite,” the historian says. “We’re haunted by settlers and their descendants.”

The haunting in Tookie’s life becomes literal in the personage of Flora, who when living was one of Tookie’s most annoying bookstore customers. Tookie refers to Flora as a “stalker — of all things Indigenous,” or else as a “very persistent wannabe.” She’s a white woman who’s fixated on Native culture, claiming variously to have been an Indian in a previous life or to have had Indigenous heritage that her family hushed up. Annoyingly, Flora also does a lot of good things for Minneapolis’s Native community — fundraisers, volunteer work, fostering Native teen runaways — so Tookie feels compelled not to call her out on her overreach.

But in death, as in life, Flora never knows when to back off. After she’s found mysteriously dead in her bed, a stolen 19th-century Indian narrative splayed open next to her, her ghost shows up at Tookie’s bookstore, all her silk shirts and many bracelets rustling behind Tookie’s shoulder, just out of sight. And as the pandemic descends on America and the bookstore is forced to transform itself into a mail-order business, Flora’s presence grows far more insistent, even malevolent. She refuses to be ignored.

What’s most surprising and lovely about this plot line, though, is how sweet its resolution is. (Here’s your spoiler warning.) What it takes to get rid of Flora, in the end, is not an exorcism or anything hostile. It’s acknowledgment. Flora must be brought face to face with the fact that her ancestors were complicit in genocide and exploitation and torture, that she is neither innocent nor secretly oppressed, even though the shock of this realization is what killed her. And Tookie must be brought face to face with the good Flora has done, must thank her for saving Tookie’s own life.

That seems to be what, in the end, we owe the dead in this book: acknowledgment of their sins and their virtues, respect to their bodies, and freedom for their spirits to go in peace.

Share your thoughts on The Sentence in the comments section below, and be sure to RSVP for our upcoming live discussion event with Louise Erdrich. In the meantime, subscribe to the Vox Book Club newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything.

Discussion questions

  1. What do you believe we owe the dead?
  2. Erdrich makes a cameo in this book! She’s the owner of the store where Tookie works, which bears a striking resemblance to Erdrich’s real-life bookstore, Birchbark Books. How does her appearance here strike you?
  3. We’re in the midst of the first wave of pandemic novels, with likely more to come as time goes on. How do you feel about this one?
  4. The Sentence veers pretty wildly between emotional tones. Tookie’s theft of Budgie’s body is very madcap and fun, and then her early days at the bookstore are settled and restrained and slice-of-life-esque. By the time Erdrich gets into the pandemic and the protests over George Floyd’s murder, she’s writing something close to narrative nonfiction. For me, the shifting tones work because of the lightness of Erdrich’s touch. What did you think?
  5. We love a book that comes with its own syllabus. Have you read any of the books recommended at the end? What did you think?
  6. What would be on your personal ghostbusting playlist?

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