The sentence

Just finished The Sentence by Louise Erdrich. Despite some reviews it’s not “a love letter to readers and booksellers” (or anyone else) nor “a wickedly funny ghost story” or any other kind of funny.

It’s An Important Book, the kind high school teachers tend to assign when they want their students to Consider And Discuss Social Issues. If I were to teach English in 2050 (highly unlikely) I’d assign it. If I was a Modern History teacher I would probably assign it as well – it’s A Mirror of Our Time.

Sure, none of that makes a good sales pitch, but that’s ok. It really is the real thing, a book one may want to re-read even again and again even though it’s not fun, a book to think about and to change one’s views. I really wish I could discuss this book in a high school classroom – sit in a circle, be angry, exclaim my opinion, debate the opinions of others. Book clubs are not the same – one is an adult, constrained by convention, politeness, wariness, kindness. This book is steak and potatoes – good heavy food that takes some tasting. I got used to chocolate cake and sushi and internalizing the Sentence feels odd, like remembering an old skill.

It’s not really even about ghosts. There is a ghost, and multiple stories of other ghosts, but it’s really just there for the plot. There are also Events – will Tookie forgive her husband? Will her husband survive? Will her daughter like her, ever? What will happen with the baby’s father? Who wins the elections in 2020? and those aren’t important either, although the plot is good, and tight, and unpredictable.

Mostly the Sentence is about living in the world where your ancestors lost. One could say it’s the opposite of the modern Jewish experience – after all, we’d reached the semi-finals. Maybe Josephus, who failed to commit suicide, and passed to his children the name Flavius, and persistently married Jewish women would have understood Tookie (main character) better than I do (they would hate each other). Everyone in the book lives with raw places, constant reminders of their loss, constant insults – in lack of thought and even worse in thoughtless kindness.

It’s also about what 2019 and 2020 were like – with the pandemic, and the riots, and the bitter sense of something broken. Not for me, of course – if it was maybe I wouldn’t have wanted to read about it, but for many who aren’t me. Checking my privilege – it’s still right here, uff.

My pandemic experience was not like Tookie’s. It was almost lovely – we were prepared, together, in the best place possible and while I’m good at being anxious I’m terrible at being afraid. I felt useful. There was that feeling of floating in amber, every day much like another, but none actually bad. I joked (mainly to myself) that I’d have been perfectly happy to have this continue forever if only people weren’t dying all the time. Tookie was rightly horrified. Her world caved in. I know that most other people were horrified as well, but a good book is much more real than all the newspaper articles.

My riot time passed almost unnoticed – I was busy handling the pandemic. I was outraged, and cynical, and hated myself for being cynical because of how un-American that cynicism feels, especially when one considers it as realism. I felt the cracks in my American Dream, but it was not as important as staying indoors right now and making sure the basement was stocked up. Tookie never had an American dream at all, for her George Floyd’s murder was just that thing that always happens and always hurts. She was also much closer to the tear gas. Her riots were real and right there.

This book was important and good for me to read because it’s as much Not About Me as it’s possible for a novel about a middle-class woman my age living as an ordinary good person in America to be. It’s much more a different world from mine than most fantasy I read, but it’s real and it’s around me.

The Sentence does have likeable, interesting, and believable characters. And a good, well-twisted plot. And well crafted writing. And just enough throw-away side stories that leave one wanting to know more. These will probably contribute to my re-reading the Sentence, but mainly it’ll be about the alienness and the needing to stop and think through my emotional response to the characters’ view. I like books that make me do this.

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