#LiteraryWives: The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

Literary Wives is an on-line book group that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Four times a year, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Donโ€™t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!

We’re delighted this month to welcome our newest member, Rebecca at Bookish Beck!

More importantly than anything else, reading The Sentence for Literary Wives gave me the chance to finally read one of Erdrich’s books. Hopefully I won’t wait another couple of decades before reading the next one.

Goodreads Synopsis: Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, The Sentence, asks what we owe to the living, the dead, to the reader and to the book. A small independent bookstore in Minneapolis is haunted from November 2019 to November 2020 by the store’s most annoying customer. Flora dies on All Souls’ Day, but she simply won’t leave the store. Tookie, who has landed a job selling books after years of incarceration that she survived by reading with murderous attention, must solve the mystery of this haunting while at the same time trying to understand all that occurs in Minneapolis during a year of grief, astonishment, isolation, and furious reckoning.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

The Sentence is full of bookishness: the bookstore where Tookie works, and the literary references (and recommendations) throughout. There’s even a list of books at the back called “Totally Biased List of Tookie’s Favourite Books”.

The Sentence takes place in one year – from November 2019 to November 2020. So it includes the first lock-down of the pandemic, during which the book store closes down and then starts to adapt by doing pick-up and deliveries. And it includes the murder of George Floyd and the resulting protests and riots that took place in Minneapolis. I like the idea of stories and novels acting as sort of time capsules or historic records for future readers.

The city closed off parkways so that people had room to walk outside and the paths were always full of people dodging one another, stepping off curbs and stumbling into gutters.

Sometimes late at night the hospital emitted thin streams of mist from the cracks along its windows and between the bricks. They took the shape of spirits freed from bodies. The world was filling with ghosts. We were a haunted country in a haunted world.

Even though some pretty heavy topics are explored in this book, Tookie’s tone–and the mystery of the bookshop ghost–keeps the book lighter.

But the reason we are here is to answer this question: What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Tookie is married to Pollux, the man who arrested her decades earlier when she was willing to do anything for love. In her defense, though, she didn’t know the corpse she stole had drugs stuffed into his armpits. Now, decades later, Tookie’s past is kind of a joke between them. They seem to love each other’s company while also able to know when the other needs some space or time with other people. Early in the book, we get the sense that neither Tookie nor Pollux are traditionally “beautiful” to look at, but you would never know it by the way they view each other.

Now I live as a person with a regular life. A job with regular hours after which I come home to a regular husband. Even a regular little house, but with a big irregular beautiful blowsy yard. I live the way a person does who has ceased to dread each day’s ration of time. I live what can be called a normal life only if you’ve always expected to live such a way. If you think you have the right. Work. Love. Food. A bedroom sheltered by a pine tree. Sex and wine. Knowing what I know of my tribe’s history, remembering what I can bear to remember of my own, I can only call the life I live now a life of heaven.

I think Tookie’s experience as a wife is a positive one. Pollux’s unconditional love and respect help her to feel safe and loved for the first time in her life. But at what point can you be counting on someone too much? At one point in the book, Tookie states that “if anything happened to Pollux I would die too. I would be happy to die. I would make sure that I did.” Has Tookie crossed a line once she can no longer see value in her life beyond her partner?

Join us for our next Literary Wives read on September 5, 2022 – Red Island House by Andrea Lee

34 thoughts on “#LiteraryWives: The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

  1. whatmeread says:

    I just loved this one. I think their marriage undergoes some strain as a result of the George Floyd murder, because Pollux used to be a cop. I think it makes Tookie think of the circumstances of her arrest again, and it makes Pollux revisit his ambiguous feelings about having been a cop. Still, they have a great marriage.

    • Naomi says:

      I think you’re right about that, although, for some reason, I don’t remember those parts very well. I know they had a misunderstanding about the ghost that they eventually cleared up.
      But, yes, a lovely book!

      • wadholloway says:

        I’ve been driving and listening to this all day. Read by the author, which I really enjoyed, she has a soft, very clear voice. (You didn’t mention the year ends with the election and that Tookie doesn’t want to vote despite being annoyed by the orange guy off and on throughout. The other non-wives thing is the bookstore owner, and minor character, is Louise, presumably the author).

        It’s late and I’m tired but the big change over the year,which I think would keep Tookie alive is her grandson and the consequent coming to adulthood of her (foster) daughter.

      • Naomi says:

        That’s so true. I probably shouldn’t have worried so much about her – she’s pretty tough!

        The thing about reading books for LW is I focus on the marriage stuff and not as much on everything else. But there are lots of other good things in this book. I thought she did a really good job of incorporating recent global events into the story.

        (Yes, I know it’s August. But I’m coming back!)

  2. Karissa says:

    This is an interesting choice for your Literary Wives! I didn’t think of marriage as particularly central to Tookie’s story but I did really love her relationship with Pollux. It felt solid and real, even as they found themselves disagreeing about things. And I loved the exploration of this sort of second life Tookie receives after getting out of prison and how Pollux is a part of that while also being a key part of her life before.

    • Naomi says:

      I was thinking the same thing as I read the book. But then it was a nice change to think about a marriage in a book that is about so many other things before it’s about marriage. Especially because the marriage is a good one!

  3. Rebecca Foster says:

    Great minds think alike — we chose two of the same quotes! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I had my book club discussion on another of this year’s Women’s Prize-shortlisted books, Sorrow and Bliss, last night, and we discussed whether we thought it would stand the test of time or would feel dated if we encountered it again in 20 years. It’s an interesting question to ask about The Sentence as well. Will it feel like it defined 2020, and does that limit its appeal or make it a valuable time capsule?

    • Naomi says:

      I also noticed that we chose the same quotes! ๐Ÿ™‚

      In this case, I think that it will stand the test of time. I can see myself reading it in the future, and having the memories of those events flood back on me.
      What did the group decided for Sorrow and Bliss?

      • Rebecca Foster says:

        We all loved it! It treads the line between comedy and tragedy very well — only one of us couldn’t find the humour. And we thought that at the very least it would stand out for documenting how mental illness is perceived and treated at this point in history.

  4. lauratfrey says:

    I stopped reading at “spoilers” because I do intend to read this one! Definitely don’t wait decades! I think it’s been 3 or 4 years since I last read her so I better get on it.

  5. annelogan17 says:

    I’ll admit I skimmed my way through this because I didn’t want to read any spoilers! I really really really want to read this book, I think I may go out and buy it I want to read it that bad LOL

  6. Marcie McCauley says:

    My favourite part of this one was the bookstore. It wasn’t just a backdrop in this novel, the way it so often is, even in books billed as being super bookish. But of course I do enjoy Erdrich in general. I’ve still got one left to read…hmmm…I should do that. (No, I should stick to my reading plan.) You remind me how much I love her writing. (But I’ve already got a huge stack here.) There’s nobody quite like Erdrich. (I’m losing ground here, heading to the library catalogue now, sigh…)

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