“The Sentence”: haunting and healing through language

Julia Croston, Managing Editor

Akin to a kaleidoscope — shifting in focus and meaning — Louise Erdrich’s “The Sentence” uses protagonist Tookie to reveal the complexities and interplay of identity and language. 

Tookie is a character haunted by her past, her disconnection from Ingidenious culture, the present of 2020 and a ghost inside of her bookstore. The novel opens with a friend manipulating Tookie to steal a dead body, which, to her surprise, has drugs inside of it. 

She is promptly arrested and sentenced to 60 years in prison. She gets out of prison early and marries Pollux, who previously arrested her. Tookie then opens a bookstore where she becomes haunted by the ghost of an old woman and former customer named Flora.

Set in present-day Minneapolis, Minnesota, the tail-end of the novel reckons with the death of George Floyd. The central characters protest against police brutality, giving an insight into what the protests were like in the city. Pollux, a former police officer and Indigenous man, reflects on his cultural identity and his past in relation to the violence. 

“So maybe we are on the wrong side of the English language. I think that’s possible. Still, the history of an English word eased my despair.” — “The Sentence”

The characters also deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdown. With the chaotic time setting, Erdrich offers readers an opportunity to make sense of the world in times that are difficult to process, aligning with Tookie processing her past and trauma. 

Erdrich perfectly balances heavy moments with lightheartedness by juxtaposing humor with violence, reflecting the reality that was 2020. Reading about the shared trauma of 2020 (only a short years later) may seem too soon but the novel develops a space for the reader to process what happened. 

Ignoring the past only leaves Tookie more haunted. Traumatic moments of her life are revealed as the plot progresses, and Tookie has to make sense of it all in order to be able to move forward. However, like reality, trauma cannot truly be left behind, and Erdrich gives the reader a new way to think about how to move forward and decrease the feeling of being haunted. 

“And some believe that trauma changes a person genetically. I don’t know if that’s possible, but if it is, along with the rude good health I have an inherited sense of oblivion.” — “The Sentence”

Defying stereotypes, Erdrich rejects commonly white expectations of the experiences of an Indigenous person, depicting a modern perspective. Tookie’s disconnect in not actively participating in her culture slowly loses significance as the novel progresses. Erdrich also incorporates her own experiences as an Indigenous woman and the owner of an independent bookstore in Minneapolis. 

Language is used in a multitude of ways throughout the novel to demonstrate the power it holds. The title itself takes many shapes (from when Tookie served prison time to significant sentences in books) and Eldrich proves language is both a violent and comforting force.

Before haunting Tookie as a ghost, Flora died while reading a particular sentence in a book. The characters who work in the bookstore believe this sentence killed their customer. Tookie and the other employees viewed Flora, a white woman, as a “wannabe” Indigenous woman because of her frequent appropriations of their culture. Complicating her character, Flora had always been kind, especially to Tookie and the bookstore employees. 

Often called a “love letter to readers,” the novel uses intertextuality (the incorporation of other texts to create meaning). This plays a huge role in conjunction with the plot, especially with the bookstore and Tookie’s love for reading. In the bookstore, Tookie takes pride in helping customers find specific books to read that she knows they will love. 

“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.” — “The Sentence”

Before closing out her book, placed after the final page, Erdrich includes a list of reading recommendations that were referenced throughout the novel, including “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

Names are another important aspect of the novel. Tookie’s real name is not revealed until the end, keeping the reader in suspense until bringing everything together. She rejects her real name as a way to reject being identified with her past and her mother, who was a drug addict. The distinct power of names (especially naming people) also coincides with the death of George Floyd, where his name was amplified to further bring power to the movement against police brutality. 

Uniquely, the novel’s structure can feel disorienting and detached, at times, from a typical linear time structure. These moments coincide with Tookie’s perception of her own life as she transitions from a prisoner to a wife to a bookstore owner at a rapidly accelerating pace. There are also moments where Tookie does not seem to be a fully reliable narrator, such as when she is on drugs and dealing with PTSD. Her credibility also comes into question when she sees Flora’s ghost for the first time. 

“I want to forget this year, but I’m also afraid I won’t remember this year. I want this now to be the now where we save our place, your place, on earth.” — “The Sentence”

Erdrich plays with the portrayal of reality while answering some of what is real and simultaneously remaining ambiguous. The inclusion of the pandemic and George Floyd’s death grounds the story in reality while juxtaposing with the supernatural elements included.

Through this lens, Erdrich tells an important story reflecting on complex emotional aspects of life: pain, suffering, love, happiness and trauma. Erdrich does not give the reader clear answers on how to solve major social problems and escape from feeling haunted, but she uses language to generate something meaningful. 

Ultimately, she leaves the reader with important things to think about and tells the reader: “The door is open. Go.

4.5 spinnaker sails

Spinnaker rates this book 4.5 out of 5 Spinnaker Sails. 


For more information or news tips, or if you see an error in this story or have any compliments or concerns, contact [email protected].