The Sentence and A List of Short Perfect Novels

Louise Erdrich is not one of my favorite authors but at the recommendation of a good friend, I have been trying to read her latest book The Sentence. Libby, my online librarian, first gave it to me as a hot pick – 7 days to read, but it came and went back without my looking at it and I ordered it again. Next, Libby offered it to me as a “skip the line” book – again seven days to read it. This time I made it to the second chapter before it whooshed back to the library, despite my effort to renew. Suddenly, it was there again – seven days to read – and I have been making an effort. The library may be sending me a message – I need to read this book. Slow and steady but only half way through with three days left before it will automatically return. Will I make it this time?

The story of an independent bookstore owner haunted by the ghost of a woman who died reading a book should be more than I need to keep me reading, but Erdrich, as she often does in her books, cannot resist incorporating endless pages of Native American history, culture, folklore, and more. I just want the story.

The pandemic suddenly came into the pages, and the craziness of the first few months of contagion and the ever changing survival advice was familiar, but before Tookie decides to close the store in March, 2020, her last customer comes in to hoard books instead of milk and toilet paper. Tookie creates a list of “Short Perfect Novels” I thought worth saving – some I have read. Added to the list is Jane Gardam’s Old Filth books, among my favorites.

Since I started writing this post, I did finish the book, and was satisfied with its happy ending. The author includes many lists of books mentioned in the narrative, including Lincoln in the Bardo in her list of “Ghost Managing Books,” Euphoria in her “Books for Banned Love” list, and titles for Indigenous Lives, Indigenous Poetry, Indigenous History and Nonfiction. My favorite list is this:

Tookie’s Short Perfect Novels

  • Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabel
  • Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
  • Sula by Toni Morrison
  • The Shadow Line by Joseph Conrad
  • The All of It by Jeannette Halen
  • Winter in the Blood by James Welch
  • Swimmer in the Secret Sea by William Kotzwinkle
  • The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
  • First Love by Ivan Turgenev
  • Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
  • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  • Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
  • Fire on the Mountain by Anita Desai

Tookie says “these are books that knock you sideways in around 200 pages. Between the covers there exists a complete world. The story is unforgettably peopled and nothing is extraneous. Reading one of these books takes only an hour or two but leaves a lifetime imprint…”

The Sentence took longer to read, but I’m glad I finally did.

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

9780062277022_p0_v3_s192x300  National Book Award winner Louise Erdrich makes a horrible incident more tragic in her latest novel of Native American life – LaRose.  An Ojibwe man is out hunting for deer and accidentally shoots and kills his best friend’s 5-year-old son, Dusty. Erdrich creates the inconceivable – trading the hunter’s young son, LaRose, for the dead boy he shot.

The hunter has a 5-year-old son of his own; in keeping with the tribe’s tradition, 5-year-old LaRose goes to live with Dusty’s family.  Although framed as a traditional old-world way of compensating for loss, the action is jarring and incredible.  Nonetheless, it creates a compelling story.

I tried reading Erdrich’s award winning The Round House but never made it through.  Determined this time to discover why Erdrich is so revered as a writer, I read on but it wasn’t easy.  Her language is plain; her sentences choppy.  The story jumps around, hard to follow.  But Erdrich conjures up real Native American characters who take what they can from the white man’s world while preserving their heritage.

In LaRose, the two families struggle through a series of missteps to find forgiveness and justice, and in the end decide to share the little boy, LaRose, and muddle through all the difficulties associated with passing him back and forth.  The story is more  about coping than forgiveness: scenes of old women in a nursing home managing their pain, adult men straddling loyalty to the reservation and the white man’s country, saintly LaRose trying to keep peace between his adopted mother and his real mother; the mothers in pain and denial.

I respect reviewer Mary Gordon’s assessment of the author in the New York Times:

“Perhaps the most important of Erdrich’s achievements is her mastery of complex forms. Her novels are multivocal, and she uses this multiplicity to build a nest, capacious, sturdy and resplendent, for her tales of Indians, living and dead, of the burden and power of their heritage, the challenge and comedy of the present’s harsh demands.”

But I probably will not read another of Erdrich’s novels.