This is a book about books, and bodies, and babies. It is a book about the things that haunt us – the things that remain, that refuse to die, so that we have to ask ourselves what purpose they are serving. This is also a book that takes place for the most part over the course of a year that begins in November 2019 – so you know what else this is a book about.
The main character of this novel is Tookie, an Ojibwe woman in Minnesota who endured a harrowing childhood and drug addiction in her young adulthood. Her addiction lead her to a crime for which she was sentenced to 60 years in prison. She serves 10 of those years before her early release – in that time, she has gotten clean and honed her love of reading. Upon her release, Tookie begins working for a local indigenous bookstore, falls in love and marries, and essentially falls into a comfortable life. A regular customer, Flora, dies in November 2019 – and Tookie is the first to notice that Flora continues to hang around the bookstore.
Flora is not just a regular customer. She seems to be a white woman who believes that she has native heritage, but struggles to find proof of that. Despite not being able to definitely state her connection to a tribe, she focuses her time and attention towards native groups. She adopted a native teenager, donated her time and money to different native causes – she was reliable and present. And yet, her presence always grated on Tookie, who found her to be a try-hard wannabe. Thus, Tookie is surprised and a bit annoyed when she first notices that Flora is haunting the bookstore and making her presence known mostly to Tookie alone.
This book takes on a LOT. As mentioned, the timing of the book covers 2020, and even writing that feels heavy. While the books isn’t overly long (374 pages) it feels as though there are many different parts, sort of like the experience of 2020 itself. There’s the BEFORE, where Tookie is dealing with a haunting, which feels very important to her (and to be fair, that would be quite a stressful situation). As a reader who knows what’s to come, there’s something powerful about the dread you feel when she describes a book tour taking place in early March 2020. She recounts the unease of February 2020 – do we need more hand sanitizer? What should our family be hoarding from the store? And then the dread of that spring, the complete uncertainty, the feeling of being locked in and isolated during the shutdown. All of that sits in the middle of the book – and I wasn’t quite prepared for the way it hit me, honestly. Surely over time we will get more pandemic-related literature, but this might be the first book for me that provides a fictional account of that time that feels quite real.
But it doesn’t stop with the onset of the pandemic. This novel also deals directly with the tragic death of George Floyd and the protests that follow. Tookie has a complicated relationship to the protests, but many people in her sphere are directly involved with the uprising. There’s very real depictions of the pain of watching someone you love endure Covid (and the special hell that is Covid-era hospitalizations). Mental health, addiction and indigenous metaphysics are all given space. There’s trauma upon trauma, because, again, this is a book about what haunts us. This story is generally linear, but because there are so many different threads it feels quite impressive when the author brings each part together for a more or less satisfying conclusion.
Something really lovely about this book is the amount of book recommendations embedded within it. Tookie’s job as a bookseller is central to the plot, and most of us will feel right at home in her bookstore. It’s such a joy to read about people who truly love books. The author helpfully includes booklists at the back – I took pictures of these pages to fill my own TBR pile with. I highly suggest making room in your own TBR pile for this timely, enjoyable novel.