"Five days after Flora died, she was still coming to the bookstore. I’m still not strictly rational. How could I be? I sell books." -- Louise Erdrich, The Sentence
I cannot remember when I last read a book which inspired me to uninhibitedly laugh out loud and cry heartfelt tears! I’m deeply moved by Louise Erdrich's latest book, The Sentence. This contemporary gothic experience is narrated by Tookie who works at a small independent bookstore in Minneapolis and endures haunting encounters. Through relatable quirky characters, including Tookie, her fellow booksellers, and family, we reckon with the real tragedy of George Floyd’s murder by a police officer, and the beginning of the pandemic. Erdrich set out to write this book as a ghost story set in a bookstore from All Souls' Day (November 2) in 2019 to All Souls' Day in 2020. Without knowing we would soon experience traumas such as the murder of George Floyd or the depths of the pandemic, she didn't shy away! She gives us an evocative reckoning and I am anxious to relive it by listening to her read the audio book right away! As always, Erdrich offers a complex story with wry insight into social justice, counter marginalization, and validation for present day Indigenous people.
By the way, Erdrich was writing The Sentence when she visited Lawrence during the tour for her previous book, The Night Watchman. Within The Sentence, she writes:
March 11. Lawrence, Kansas. ‘Known for John Brown’s raids and first case of 1918 influenza on American soil.’
For Native people it is known for Haskell Indian Nations University. A historical Indigenous university. It had started as a government boarding school. Every tribal person had someone who went to Haskell or was going there now. Louise was excited to read at Haskell. This was a high point of the tour. Her great-aunts had been educated at Haskell and done well in life. Her grandfather had run away from the place when he was a child. He made it all the way back from Kansas to the Turtle Mountains of North Dakota, just under the Canadian border. ‘How, I wonder?’ she texted. The book she was touring for was about her grandfather, Patrick Gourneau.
After reading on the campus in a historic gym covered with hand-painted Native-inspired art deco designs, after a prayer fire, after meeting her new friend, Carrie, the librarian, after the smart, funny, sharply beautiful students and teachers, and Raven Books…
Louise Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and owns Birchbark Books & Native Arts, a small independent bookstore in Minneapolis, established in 2001. She has earned acclaim for much of her writing, including the Pulitzer Prize for The Night Watchman, the National Book Award for The Round House, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Love Medicine. The Sentence is certain to also receive award recognition.
Here in Lawrence, artist Xavier Martinez created a memorial to George Floyd that prominently faces 23rd Street between Vermont and Massachusetts Streets. Included in an interactive exhibit Our Pandemic Year, on display at the library through New Year’s Eve, is the photo of Martinez with his mural. This interactive exhibit is a collaboration with Judy Paley (pandemic collage-maker, arts advocate, and longtime library supporter) and photographer Jeff Burkhead; you’re welcome to add your pandemic story to the wall too. Jeff Burkhead’s book is coming out soon; take a peek here, opens a new window.
I am also remembering the loss of Gregg Sevier here in Lawrence on April 21, 1991. His parents called 911 to seek help from a trained professional because Gregg was depressed and not responsive; instead, when the police arrived, they shot and killed Gregg. The book Hitchita! The Documented Story of the Shooting of Gregg Sevier by Gerald P. Thomas reveals the painful events surrounding this tragic death.
Books provide solace and hope. I'm compelled to further reflect on the bookish nature of The Sentence by Louise Erdrich – this story is a celebration of books. Reading recommendations appear throughout, so prepare to add this and many more books to your to-read list! And if you have not yet visited this author's bookstore, here is an opportunity to explore the webpage for Birchbark Books & Native Arts, opens a new window.
Photo of Xavier Martinez standing with his mural of George Floyd by Jeff Burkhead
Cover image credit: Autumn in the Wakarusa Wetlands photo by Shirley Braunlich.
- Shirley Braunlich is a Readers' Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.