The coronavirus pandemic is still raging away and God knows we’ll be reading novels about it for years, but Louise Erdrich’s “The Sentence” may be the best one we ever get. Neither a grim rehashing of the lockdown nor an apocalyptic exaggeration of the virus, her book offers the kind of fresh reflection only time can facilitate, and yet it’s so current the ink feels wet.

Such is the mystery of Erdrich’s work, and “The Sentence” is among her most magical novels, switching tones with the felicity of a mockingbird. She notes that the Native American language of her ancestors “includes intricate forms of human relationships and infinite ways to joke,” and she fully explores that spectrum in these pages: A zany crime caper gives way to the horrors of police brutality; lives ruined flip suddenly into redemption; the deaths of half a million Americans play out while a grumpy ghost causes mischief. But the abiding presence here is love.

And books – so many books. This is a novel packed to its spine with other books. I was keeping track of each one mentioned until I discovered Erdrich’s appendix, which lists more than 150 beloved titles. Be prepared: “The Sentence” is that rare novel about the life-transforming effect of literature that arrives with its own syllabus.

The narrator, Tookie, is a convicted body snatcher with a hard-won appreciation for the words used to build stories. She opens the novel by announcing, “While in prison, I received a dictionary.” She immediately looked up the word “sentence” because, she notes, “I had received an impossible sentence of sixty years from the lips of a judge who believed in an afterlife.”

Fortunately, that harsh punishment doesn’t carry her to the great beyond. In fact, after reading every book in the prison library “with murderous attention,” Tookie gets released in 2015, decades earlier than she’d feared.

Because she’d spent so long dreaming of a wider selection than the prison’s ample store of craft books, she decides to look first for a job in a bookstore. Only one employer responds to her résumé: “a modest little place” that specializes in Native American literature and is owned by a novelist named Louise.

Fans will recognize that entrepreneurial writer as the Pulitzer Prize winner herself and her “modest little place” as Birchbark Books, which Erdrich owns in Minneapolis. This isn’t the first time Erdrich has written herself into her own fiction; her 2010 masterpiece “Shadow Tag” was inspired by the dissolution of her marriage to the writer Michael Dorris. But in “The Sentence,” Louise is only a side character, a benevolent, somewhat distracted owner who admits, “This is a dark time for little bookstores and we probably won’t make it,” and then offers Tookie a job.

Those odds are fine with Tookie, whose status as an ex-con gives her few options. “I am an ugly woman,” she tells us, adding, “nor am I beautiful on the inside.” But she knows her strengths. “My go-to outfit was black jeans, high-top black Stompers, black football jersey, nose ring, eyebrow cuff, tight black bandanna headband to keep my hair in place,” she says. “Who would dare not buy a book from me?”

There’s no denying Tookie’s gruff charm or her swelling pride when she says, “I resisted the temptation to pilfer the till and I resisted the temptation to steal credit card info.” This whirlwind of an opening chapter even sees Tookie find love and marriage with a most unlikely person. “Knowing what I know of my tribe’s history, remembering what I can bear to remember of my own,” she says, “I can only call the life I live now a life of heaven.”

The great arc of these first 30 pages – zany body-snatching! harrowing prison ordeal! opposites-attract rom-com! – could have provided all the material needed for a whole novel, but Erdrich has something else in mind for “The Sentence”: This is a ghost story – though not like any I’ve read before. The novel’s ectoplasm hovers between the realms of historical horror and cultural comedy.

In late 2019, Tookie’s most annoying customer, Flora, dies. But five days later, Flora is back in the store, haunt-browsing. Tookie can hear her shuffling about, knocking books off the shelves. “It is disturbing enough when a regular customer dies,” Tookie says, “but Flora’s stubborn refusal to vanish began to irk me.”

When she was alive, Flora was irritating in a most peculiar way: She was wholly devoted to Native American causes – fostering Native American teenagers, raising money for a Native American women’s shelter, attending every powwow and protest. But there was always something creepy and grasping about Flora’s Nativephilia, her desperation to convince people of her Indigenous heritage. “She was a very persistent wannabe,” Tookie says. Her desire to be Native American eventually became an “earnest, unaccountable, persistent, self-obliterating delusion.”

After her cremation, nothing changes. “In death as in life,” Tookie sighs, “she couldn’t take a hint.”

Getting Flora to rest in peace will be harder than any sale Tookie has ever made, and that exorcism soon runs into other old spirits haunting this novel, along with new specters rising up. The coronavirus pandemic threatens to snuff out the economy, starting with retail shops. And the murder of George Floyd unleashes a wave of grief and rage. “Our country crept along beneath a pall of sorrow,” Tookie says. “There was a continual hum of panic.”

When people are dying, mourning and isolating, what kind of refuge can a little bookstore be?

A surprisingly effective one. “It was more than a place,” Tookie says, “it was a nexus, a mission, a work of art, a calling, a sacred craziness, a slice of eccentricity, a collection of good people who shifted and rearranged but cared deeply about the same one thing – books.”

That could be a sentimental theme – there are shelves of novels celebrating bookstores – but Erdrich complicates that warm feeling. Moving at its own peculiar rhythm with a scope that feels somehow both cloistered and expansive, “The Sentence” captures a traumatic year in the history of a nation struggling to appreciate its own diversity.


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