Walking around Lake of the Isles last week I pulled my scarf up over my mouth. I’d never done that before but that’s how they do here. I’m starting to feel like a local, as my scarf blocked the cold wind pummeling my face.
Woven lovingly of the softest silk and wool by my island friend Lucy Tracy, the scarf’s comforting warmth reminds me of everyone who ever worked with me at OZ Books, my bookstore in Southwest Harbor, Maine, from 1982 to 1997. The Ozettes gave me the scarf for my 50th birthday.
As a former sister bookseller I was drawn to Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, The Sentence. It takes place at her Birchbark Books, halfway around Lake of the Isles. Hers is the bookstore that reminds me most of my OZ Books. It has a purpose beyond making money, the same way OZ did highlighting kids’ books on history and social justice.
Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, focuses her twenty-year-old store on books by and about indigenous people.
I couldn’t wait to read her new book. I empathized with her, although I had never read any of her acclaimed books.
There was so much I didn’t know.
I purchased The Sentence. It so resonated with me, from its main character Tookie’s plight as a bookseller, to ghost customer Flora’s permutation of the story, to the inclusion of present-day politics such as the murder of George Floyd, and life under the pandemic,
Tookie conjured up my own blurting: “Well, tough shit,” she tells the doctor, who insists she leave her covid-struck husband Pollux in the hospital. “I’m staying,” says Tookie, who’s such a complex character.
Pollux’s and Tookie’s backstory injects a ton of intrigue into the story. But then, every character comes alive in Erdrich’s artful storytelling.
Tookie cares deeply about her bookstore customers, which is partly why Flora the bookstore ghost so consumes her. Referring to one customer as “Dissatisfaction,” Tookie prides herself on finding the perfect books for him.
Sound familiar, dear independent booksellers? Has anyone else’s bookstore been haunted?
“The world is haunted,” writes Erdrich.
Pollux is such a calm, comic relief to the many twists and turns in this novel. Additionally, the understated humor, abundant love, and power of books (see the incredible list of titles at the end) shine through.
The Sentence brought me closer to Minneapolis and its fraught history involving indigenous peoples. The Dakota War? I knew nothing about it.
The novel also urged me closer to native spirituality. Why do I immediately smudge every new place I’ve ever lived, which got me thinking about friends who tell me I’m spiritual.
“Nah, not me,” I’ve been known to respond.
The book’s title is also a conundrum. When Tookie tells Erdrich, who is a character in the book, “What I’m trying to say is that a certain sentence of the [mysterious] book — a written sentence, a very powerful sentence, killed Flora.”
“I wish I could write a sentence like that,” replies Erdrich, in character.
In reality, Erdrich’s delicious sentences grabbed me. They wouldn’t let go.
Erdrich became my friend, which doesn’t happen to me often while reading a novel. I loved the questions Tookie asked herself. I loved Erdrich’s perspective as the bookstore owner. I loved everything about this book.
Today I walked back to Birchbark Books to buy a copy of Braiding Sweetgrass. How lucky am I to have a terrific little bookstore only a half-mile from my apartment. It was a sunshiny day with the temperature in the high 30s. And I had to take another look at that priestly confession box, which serves an important role in The Sentence.
The door is open. Go.