70 pages 2 hours read

Louise Erdrich

The Sentence

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide


The Sentence by Louise Erdrich is a 2021 novel that celebrates family, Native American identity, the importance of community spaces, and people coming together in love and support. The novel incorporates important events of 2020, such as the murder of George Floyd and the COVID-19 epidemic, as well as contemporary facts about US incarceration rates, racism, and reparations.

Infused with autobiographical allusions to author Erdrich’s own life, the novel explores spirituality, bookstores, stories, and current events as symbolic of the human experience. Erdrich narrates primarily through the first-person point-of-view of the protagonist, Tookie, an Ojibwe (or Chippewa) woman whose character development is informed by a cast of complex secondary characters, including the ghost of a white woman appropriating Native American culture.

Louise Erdrich, the owner of Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is a member of the Native American tribe known as the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. A recipient of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, Erdrich is the author of 28 books.

This guides uses the 2021 Kindle edition of The Sentence, published by Harper.

Content Warning: The book and this guide contain references to illicit drug use and overdose, human trafficking, inappropriate handling of corpses, police brutality, and institutionalized racism.

Plot Summary

The Sentence begins with a crime. Tookie, a Native American woman in Minnesota, steals the body of her crush’s former lover. However, Tookie fails to realize that the corpse is taped with drugs. Tookie is arrested and incarcerated for body stealing, drug transport, and accepting money for doing so. She’s sentenced to 60 years in prison but is released after seven years thanks to the diligent work of her reservation’s lawyer.

After she’s set free from prison, Tookie finds a job at author Louise Erdrich’s bookstore, Birchbark Books. Tookie marries Pollux, a Native American man she’s known for a long time—and the same man who arrested her for her crime. Tookie’s new life is marked by her love of literature, her safe home with Pollux, and her friendships with the other bookstore employees. However, this new life is challenged when the ghost of Flora, an annoying but loyal customer in the bookstore who recently died, begins haunting Tookie. Flora’s adopted daughter gives Tookie the book that Flora was reading when she died. Titled The Sentence, this book is a journal written by an incarcerated Native American woman in the 19th century. Tookie has difficulty reading it, both because the writing is nearly illegible and because her emotional connection to the story overwhelms her. When she discovers a certain sentence on the page that Flora was reading when she died, Tookie nearly dies herself—but stops before finishing the sentence.

Convinced that The Sentence holds some sort of spirit, Tookie attempts to destroy the book. The book is indestructible, however, so she buries it in her backyard. Tookie believes that Flora’s ghost haunts her at the bookstore because of Tookie’s past desecrating of a body. If Tookie can figure out the mystery of The Sentence or a way to destroy it, perhaps she can set Flora’s spirit free.

Tookie and Hetta, Pollux’s niece and Tookie’s unofficial adopted daughter, have a fraught relationship that Tookie hopes will mend when Hetta returns home with an unexpected baby boy named Jarvis. Meanwhile, Tookie is present for the cremation of Flora’s body’s—but is devastated when the cremation doesn’t get rid of Flora’s ghost.

In March, COVID-19 shuts everything down, but Birchbark Books is deemed an essential business. Tookie struggles with her anxieties about the virus and now must also be alone in the store with Flora’s ghost. Eventually, a fellow employee named Pen admits that she too can hear Flora’s ghost and wrote strange notes that felt as if Flora dictated them.

In May, George Floyd is murdered by the Minneapolis police, spurring protests and violent riots. As Minneapolis burns, the world reckons with histories of colonialism, racism, and questionable institutions. Pollux wrestles with his past as a police officer, and Tookie senses a newfound and previously unacknowledged resentment toward Pollux for arresting her. Asema (a bookstore employee) and Hetta become close because they attend protests together, which also brings Hetta and Tookie closer, as Tookie stays home caring for Jarvis. In addition, the protests reunite Hetta and Laurent, Jarvis’s father, who tells a bizarre and mysterious story about his “rugaroo” lineage.

Pollux contracts COVID and is hospitalized for many weeks. Uncertain of his fate, Tookie camps out in the hospital parking lot and waits for news, resolving her resentment toward him and choosing love. Pollux recovers and returns home, starting a revived and harmonious chapter for the family.

Asema discovers the truth about Flora’s ghost and the mysterious and dangerous book The Sentence. Flora died reading the truth about her past, a truth also tied to Tookie’s past: Flora’s ancestor, a white woman, enslaved Tookie’s ancestor in a human trafficking operation and tortured her. The book reveals Tookie’s real name, Lily. Tookie realizes that all the books Flora’s ghost dropped onto the floor contained hints about Tookie’s real name. Pen devises a plan to rid the bookstore of Flora’s ghost, and Flora’s spirit is finally set free.