Louise Erdrich's "creaky old" Minneapolis house might well have its own resident ghost, but she's not talking about it.
"It does," she said in a recent interview. "And that's all I'm going to say. I don't want to disturb this ghost. I feel like I really don't want to disturb things."
Fortunately her Minneapolis bookstore, Birchbark Books, is also haunted, and that ghost was one of the inspirations for her new novel, "The Sentence" (in stores Tuesday).
Erdrich had long wanted to write a ghost story that unfolds over the course of a year in a bookstore. But each time she started it, she got sidetracked by something else — most recently by the writing of "The Night Watchman," which won this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
"I would start it, and then I would start it again, and then I would start it again," she said. "Finally I decided in 2019, this is the time."
She started writing on All Souls Day, Nov. 2, telling herself, "I will write through whatever happens in the next year and I will learn how to deal with what we called in grade school 'current events.' Well, then the current events got so overwhelming that I couldn't even take notes."
"The Sentence" takes place between November 2019 and November 2020, and while it starts out screamingly funny, by mid-novel COVID-19 has swept the country, George Floyd has been murdered, and Minneapolis is in flames.
While those chapters have an intense, almost journalistic feel, Erdrich said she didn't write them as things unfolded.
"I was not equipped," she said. "I still haven't come to grips with what happened, even though I tried to in this book. I wasn't writing at all during that time. Who could do anything but pay attention?"
When she resumed writing she found it very hard to write about those events, so close to home, so intense and still so unresolved.
"In my journals, my writer's notebooks, I have a repeating, 'I can't do this, I can't do this, this is beyond me,' when it came to what happened with George Floyd. 'This is not in my wheelhouse. This is impossible for me.'
"I felt very small. Very inadequate to write about the enormity of what happened.So I also have these notes to myself: 'You can do it!' But that was sort of bravado.'You can do it.'"
The 'Book Louise'
"The Sentence" is narrated by Tookie, an impulsive, funny, word-obsessed Native woman who has recently been released from prison (how she got there is explained in that screamingly funny first chapter). Now she works at a Minneapolis bookstore that is a lot like Erdrich's — owned by a writer named Louise who is about to head out on a book tour just as the pandemic begins sweeping the country.
Louise is a minor character, but her appearance in the book is like a lovely inside secret. She writes charming e-mails to the staff, lives in a creaky old house with a ghost that manifests itself in her attic writing room (where it helps her with her work) and ultimately cuts her book tour short when her daughters and her public-health-physician sister urge her to come home.
"I guess I have some things in common with her," Erdrich admitted.
The ghost that haunts the novel's bookstore is the ghost of Flora, a customer who died while reading a book. Tookie determines that it was one particular sentence that caused her demise.
"What I'm trying to say is that a certain sentence of the book — a written sentence, a very powerful sentence — killed Flora," Tookie tells the character Louise.
"Louise was silent. After a few moments she spoke. 'I wish I could write a sentence like that.'"
Erdrich hoots with laughter recalling that scene. "Because so many writers would be like, yeah. And maybe I would, too. I never really asked myself that question. I asked the Book Louise that question."
One long sentence
"The Sentence," which has been longlisted for the 2022 Carnegie Medal, opens with an epigraph from Minneapolis poet Sun Yung Shin's collection "Unbearable Splendor." It reads: "From the time of birth to the time of death, every word you utter is part of one long sentence."
The word "sentence" in the book refers to many things — Tookie's ridiculously long prison sentence, the sentence that killed Flora, and the sample sentences given in Tookie's beloved dictionary. Two such sentences, which the dictionary gives as examples of the word "sentence," are: "The door is open," and, "Go!" Both recur throughout the novel, reverberating more each time they appear.
The dictionary in the novel is real, a 1969 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language that Erdrich won in a 1971 essay contest sponsored by (of all things) the National Football League.
"I don't think the NFL gives out these dictionaries anymore," she said. Erdrich still has hers, and it has accompanied her all over the country.
In the novel, it appears in the opening sentence, when Tookie states: "While in prison, I received a dictionary."
Erdrich wrote that line, and then "I thought, Oh, no, I thought, this is the first line of the book and it implies so much. Then I just kept writing.
"It went very quick. When I look back, it seems like it's all in one handwriting. I must have written it quite quickly because I couldn't stop Tookie from doing what she was going to do. She was going to totally mess up her life and there was no stopping her."
Tookie does mess up her life, and she goes to prison, but then she is sent the dictionary, and it changes everything.
Does Erdrich believe that books, that reading, can change the course of a person's life?
"I absolutely think reading can transform a person. Yes," she said firmly. "Each book is a sharing of a consciousness, the ability to see into another person's life."
The politics of wild rice
In one scene in the novel, someone gives Tookie a bag of wild rice, which starts her musing on the difference between truly wild rice and commercial "tame paddy rice."
"People get into fights over it," Tookie says. "Real wild rice is grown wild, harvested by Native people, and tastes of the lake it comes from."
Erdrich has been active in fighting Line 3, the Enbridge pipeline that cuts across Native land in northern Minnesota and endangers fragile wild rice beds.
"What if all the barbecue in the South was threatened by a pipeline?" Erdrich said. "Would the South not rise up to protect their barbecue? Yes. So that's what's happening. We can all bring something of our lives to bear on climate chaos. We may be able, with our personal actions, to make a difference."
"The Sentence" is ultimately a political book because of the time period it covers. But Erdrich's books have become increasingly political over the years, with the Pulitzer-winning "The Night Watchman" exploring the history of how the U.S. government tried to eradicate Native tribes in the 1950s.
"I don't start out thinking a book would be political," she said. "I start out thinking, 'I can't wait to write a ghost story and set it in the bookstore because it's a haunted space anyway.' So that was my intention."
It is unclear what spirit might haunt Birchbark Books, which was a butcher shop decades ago, but Erdrich said it manifests itself in various ways.
"It's hard to enter that bookstore at night when everything is dark," she said. "Every time I go into the bookstore, there's always noises that don't belong there. It's rarely quiet."
Erdrich, it must be said, doesn't believe in ghosts, though she doesn't find that a contradiction.
"I am a rational person who doesn't believe in ghosts," she said. "But I have to say that there are things that I cannot explain, that these things happen and sometimes they involve appearances.
"I mean, it's not verifiable — no one has ever caught aghost. And yet there's no question that things happen that nobody understands."
In many of Erdrich's novels, there is a fine line between the physical world and the spirit world. In "LaRose," for instance, young LaRose sees his ancestors in the woods, and in "The Night Watchman" Thomas Wazhashk sees the ghost of a boy named Roderick.
"That's why I started ['The Sentence'] in November," Erdrich said. "It's the time when we're just so close to the spirit world."
The events in "The Sentence" are horrific and disturbing, from the increasingly malign ghost to the murder of Floyd to the police assaulting protesters to the insidiousness of COVID-19. And yet in this novel, as in her previous novels, Erdrich's empathy undergirds everything, and love, which might not conquer all, certainly prevails.
Does this mean she's an optimist?
"Is there a choice?" Erdrich said. There is a long pause. "That's a pessimistic thing to say!" she said, and burst out laughing.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Louise Erdrich: 'The Sentence'
Event: Erdrich will launch her new novel at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 8 at Lake of the Isles Lutheran Church, Mpls.
Livestream: In-person reservations are full but the event can be viewed via Birchbark Books' YouTube and Facebook pages.