I am not usually a fan of magical realism. I prefer magic that operates under an ordered system invented by the author, and is undeniably real in the pages of a book. The dreamy, this-may-not-really-be-happening attitude behind magical realism often seems to me contrived or unnecessary. But The Sentence describes events that I lived through here in Minneapolis—the beginning of the pandemic and murder of George Floyd—in that same dreamy, surreal style. It actually felt just like that.
The book is a first-person narrative by a woman named Tookie, a Native American who has not always made, shall we say, the best life choices. But Tookie learned, in prison, “to read with a force that resembled insanity,” which allowed her to get most of her shit together. In 2020, she is working at Birchbark Books in Minneapolis. It’s a real place. Louise Erdrich owns Birchbark Books, and oddly appears as a minor character in her own story.
The bookstore, or more specifically Tookie herself, is being haunted by the ghost of an elderly and irritating customer. Narrated in the same surreal tones, the events of 2020 Minneapolis become similarly haunted and unreal. I remember being in those liminal times, both more and less effected than Tookie and her friends. DreamHaven Books and Uncle Hugos (both mentioned in The Sentence) were much closer to danger than Birchbark Books, but we do not share the heritage of oppression. The book is a reminder of the unexpectedness, uncertainty and, yes, magic of that awakening year.