Larry McMurtry once opined that even the best authors eventually run out of steam and can no longer produce the quality of work they did in the past. Despite a multitude of examples to the contrary, let’s suppose the (Lonesome) Doveman is correct. If so, Louise Erdrich, one of the best novelists of our time defies the laws of nature. From her opening act (Antelope Wife, 1984) through such gems as The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse to her latest The Sentence Erdrich has produced an unbroken string of literary winners. Her pages are filled with magic and miracles, yet remain firmly on terra firma. How she does that I’ll never ever know, but she does.
The Sentence first refers to a period of incarceration to which our protagonist “Tookie” is sentenced for a framed up drug-smuggling charge. She’s out before too long and afterwards goes back to running her little book store (Erdrich herself, as many of us know, runs one such herself). She marries the man who arrested her. The store becomes haunted by the ghost of a woman who was a former customer but refuses to go away quietly. Or at all, really. There’s a daughter, Hetta, from whom Tookie is estranged, though things get better when Hetta has a baby. She won’t reveal the father, but the relationship survives somehow.
In the midst of all this is a character named Louise, another refugee from Erdrich’s life, perhaps, though there’s nothing overtly to suggest that about that that I could detect. There’s a church, a baptism, votive candles.There’s also a rugaroo, a wolf person who keeps coming back to life and who returns to certain places….”places where it hadn’t finished some wolf business.”
[See what I mean about making the paranormal appear absolutely normal when people speak about it so plainly and literally?] But then we make a leap. This from Tookie:
She (Flora, the ghost) died from reading a book.
‘People die from reading books, of course!’ Louise said sarcastically.
What I’m trying to say. . .’
‘Books aren’t meant to be safe. Sadly, or heroically, depending on the way you look at it, books do kill people.’
‘In places where books are forbidden of course. . .What I’m trying to say is that a certain sentence of the book–a written sentence, a very powerful sentence–killed Flora.’
Louise was silent. after a few moments she spoke.
‘I wish I could write a sentence like that.’
So, suddenly, the novel, instead of proceeding from a fairly inconsequential fictional pronouncement of incarceration–the ‘Sentence’ we thought we were reading about–we’re amazingly talking about the power of the written word itself. Halfway through the book, we’re spun into another dimension, smoothly and forcefully, before we even realize we were traveling.
And then it’s cremation. Except how do you cremate a ghost? You’ll have to ask Erdrich, and to ask her you have to read every sentence of The Sentence. Not at all an unpleasant thing to be sentenced to. Like every other work of hers, you’ll find these pages amusing, baffling, inspiring and magical.