I am a sucker for Louise Erdrich, and this book did not disappoint. This is a book lover’s story: the romance of words, sentences, the independent bookstore, discussions about books, book recommendations, all wrapped up in a darn good story.
Tookie, the narrator begins: “While in prison, I received a dictionary. . . I had received an impossible sentence of sixty years from the lips of a judge who believed in the afterlife. So the word with its yawning c, belligerent little e‘s, with its hissing sibilants and double n‘s, this repetitive bummer of a word made of slyly stabbing letters that surrounded an isolate human t, this word was in my thoughts every moment of every day.” With that first paragraph I was hooked.
A comically stupid crime put her in prison. Fortunately she did not serve 60 years. Tookie gets out of prison, marries and works at the Birchbark bookstore in Minneapolis. (The store Erdrich actually owns, she does appear in the book but not as a main character) The store focuses on indigenous literature and nonfiction, but includes others as well. The store hangs on by a thread, like so many beloved bookstores we all know. There’s a bit of a mystery when a regular customer, Flora, dies. “In November 2019, death took one of my most annoying customers. But she did not disappear.” Flora haunts the store after her death, first in small annoying ways and then evermore sinister. Tookie and her co-workers are forced into action. The only clue is a book that Flora was reading at her death, titled appropriately enough: The Sentence.
Tookie’s life is further interrupted by her estranged stepdaughter arriving with a newborn, followed closely by the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. The bookstore remains open because it is recognized as essential. “As it turned out, books were important, like food, fuel, heat, garbage collection, snow shoveling, and booze.” Erdrich expertly weaves all of these stories large and small into a delightful sprawling read. A side benefit are the references to so many books. Quick reviews, a commentary. At one point I thought I should take notes, but Erdrich generously compiled a bibliography containing every book mentioned. Yay!