Desert Isle Keeper
Warning: I am a sucker for Louise Erdrich’s work, and I have been ever since I read The Antelope Wife. Ergo, I am not an impartial audience for this book, and you might not enjoy the sprawling, character-driven, magical realism-filled portrait she paints as much as I did. The Sentence is a damn good, beautifully engrossing book, and I enjoyed every minute I spent with it.
Tookie has spent years in a Minnesota prison, and reading the book sent to her by her former teacher has gotten her through a nervous breakdown and years of unjust incarceration. She’d been set up by former friends (she transported a body stuffed with narcotics), and once this comes to light, her sentence is commuted. Now free and a voracious reader, she takes up a job at Birchbark Books in Minneapolis (the bookstore Erdich herself owns in real life; the author even makes an in-universe cameo appearance), which specializes in books by Indigenous Americans and is staffed with passionate readers who know their stuff. She soon realizes the place is being haunted, though none of her co-workers seem to notice, which makes her worry about the state of her sanity. Tookie also tries to settle back into her marriage with Pollux, a formal tribal policeman – who also happened to have arrested her – and looking out for her alcoholic stepdaughter, Hetta.
Well-meaning Flora died on All Soul’s Eve. When she was alive, she was Birchbark Books’ most annoying customer, a ‘wannabe’ who kept making that classic white girl-who-wants-to-be-native claim that she has indigenous blood. Now she’s annoying Tookie in a completely different way – by playing pranks like leaving behind a book with a sentence in it that is unfinishable, causing startling effects in those who try to read it.
As Tookie tries to grapple with life on the outside – which, in this book set from All Soul’s Eve 2019 to All Soul’s Eve 2020, means grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Blue Lives Matter protests which wracked Minneapolis – as well as personal matters such Hetta’s addiction, Tookie’s pregnancy and new baby, and her husband’s feelings about his past law enforcement career. All the while, Tookie must figure out how to convince Flora to move on to the next world. But the ghost won’t do so unless Tookie researches Flora’s ancestry and proves she really does have indigenous ancestry.
Personal, warm, filled with life and love and beauty and darkness and suffering and heartbreak and joy; that is what The Sentence is. This is now officially my favorite Erdrich book. It takes the scope of her usually sprawling novels and focuses in on one family and one ghost. It has her usual sense of the spiritual, the paranormal, and grounds it in a wonderfully memorable lead character. And the ending is beautiful, well-earned and lovely. So much so that I actually teared up.
Tookie and Pollux’s romance is heartbreakingly beautiful. He is wonderfully supportive and loving, and she is tough and no-nonsense but absolutely appreciative of him. Yet Tookie has to figure out whether or not she can forgive him for participating in her arrest and then never seeing her while she was on the inside. That and the new baby complicate their love, but it never dims or fades.
Flora is an annoyance, but she is also a well-meaning figure with a little bit of spite in her. Hetta is imperfect, clever and a very realistic young person.
If you want to escape from any of the big events of the past couple of years this will probably not be a novel you want to read. A character contracts Covid-19; the George Floyd protests happen. Matters of race, police brutality and mortality are grappled with. The last few scenes made me tear up. I do not say lightly that it is a perfect book.
The Sentence is heavy and light at the same time – and all about what’s really important: love.
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Lisa Fernandes is a writer, reviewer and recapper who lives somewhere on the East Coast. Formerly employed by Firefox.org and Next Projection, she also currently contributes to Women Write About Comics. Read her blog at http://thatbouviergirl.blogspot.com/, follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thatbouviergirl or contribute to her Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/MissyvsEvilDead or her Ko-Fi at ko-fi.com/missmelbouvier