At the beginning of Louise Erdrich’s new novel, her heroine, Tookie, has just been sentenced to 60 years in prison for a horrific and ridiculous crime. It’s 2005, and although Tookie is in her thirties, “I still cling to the mental activities and habits of a teenager” – drinking and doing drugs as if she were still an impulsive young adult. Her friend Danae’s lover, Budgie, died in the arms of her ex, Mara; Danae persuades Tookie to steal a delivery truck in order to retrieve Budgie’s body. The judge who sends him to a prison in Minnesota is shocked by his crime; Tookie, however, isn’t surprised by his toughness. “I was on the wrong side of the statistics. Native Americans are the most convicted people currently in prison,” she says.
But in prison, books are his salvation. Even when she’s not allowed to have them, she calls up a library in her head: “everything from Redwall books to Huck Finn to Lilith’s Brood.” So when she was unexpectedly released in 2015 – her sentence commuted thanks to the tireless efforts of her tribe’s defense attorney – it was perhaps unsurprising that she found employment in a Minneapolis Bookstore. And here this powerful and endearing novel departs from its Orange Is the New Black-style opening. It is not Tookie’s term in the savage American prison system that is the real focus of the book, but his life after his release – a life as ordinary and extraordinary as any, circumscribed with care and meaning. politics that have always distinguished Erdrich’s work, and which won him the Pulitzer Prize for his latest novel, The Night Watchman.
This book was inspired by the life of his own grandfather, tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, who in the 1950s campaigned tirelessly against the US government’s “revocation” policy, whereby tribes Native Americans would be driven from their land, and the land sold. During her long and distinguished writing career, beginning with the famous Love Medicine in 1984, Erdrich has mapped Native American life in a way reminiscent of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County: The Creation of a fictional universe centered on reality and lived experience. . His books always clash with the politics of the present, and The Sentence has an almost shocking immediacy, set against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, where Erdrich lives.
And Erdrich not only lives there, but also has a bookstore very similar to The Sentence’s shop. Birchbark Books describes itself as “a place for the Indigirati – literate indigenous peoples who have survived over half a millennium on this continent”. And so it is with his fictional counterpart. Tookie looks over shelves filled with Indigenous history, fiction, memoirs and poetry and “realizes we’re smarter than I thought.” One of their clients is Flora, a white woman who claims Native heritage. Tookie calls her “a very persistent wannabe”: a stalker of all things Native. But when Flora suddenly dies on November 2, All Saints’ Day, “when the fabric between the worlds is thin as cloth and tears easily”, her ghost refuses to leave the bookstore. Her spirit haunts Tookie and her colleagues – and the mystery of her spiritual presence is one of the driving forces behind the book, as Tookie seeks to uncover what is causing her to drift among the shelves.
This is not the only one. The joy of Erdrich’s novels is how his characters live so richly and are as present to the reader as our own friends and relatives. Having seen her life unexpectedly returned to her, Tookie savors the everyday: the comforting presence of her husband, Pollux; his thorny relationship with his stepdaughter, Hetta. But as the novel’s timeline progresses, disaster creeps into Tookie’s happy albeit haunted life. An airborne virus shuts down the world, even if it makes the store busier than ever, thank goodness. Erdrich captures the fear and sickening pleasure of a suddenly deserted metropolis and a suddenly shut down life. Tookie is happy during the first months of the pandemic: safe.
But Floyd’s death shatters any sense of security and, in a way, takes the reader back to the beginning of the novel: to a legal system based on injustice and oppression, on the often brutal repression of black and brown people. If the second half of the novel seems more chaotic than the first, why shouldn’t it? Erdrich shows the chaos of the moment as it happens, and does so with stunning grace. “I met people going about their normal business, planting their gardens, their flower beds, watering their lawns. I passed a popcorn store that was open and stopped to buy some popcorn. The smell of popcorn has altered the smell of old tear gas – sour, musky chalk. The novel resolves in small moments of personal redemption and familial love, allowing hope amid tragedy.
Tookie’s courage and passion carry us; she is, throughout, a loyal companion, facing hardship and aware of her own good fortune. “I live like a person who has stopped dreading the daily ration of time,” she says – a motto to follow, surely, if we can.
The Sentence is published by Corsair (£20). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.