In her latest novel, The Sentence (November 2021, HarperCollins), Pulitzer Prize–winning author Louise Erdrich chronicles the relationship between Tookie, a formerly incarcerated Ojibwe woman, and the ghost of a white woman haunting the Minneapolis bookstore where Tookie works—a store modeled after Erdrich’s own Birchbark Books. A member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and a resident of Minneapolis for more than 20 years, Erdrich shares her inspiration for the novel, her love of the city’s green spaces, and what it feels like to run a bookstore during the pandemic. (Hint: better than you’d expect!)
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The pandemic and the protests that gripped Minneapolis following George Floyd’s murder are central to your new novel. Did you start writing The Sentence before or after the pandemic began? Had you already decided to weave in current events?
I started The Sentence six or seven years ago. This book was going to be a ghost story set in a bookstore, with one of the booksellers contending with the haunting. I kept getting stuck because it was set in real time. I am not a journalist, so writing about things as they happen and trying to get perspective is a challenge. Finally, in November 2019, I decided that I would start the book again and no matter what, I would not give up. Then 2020 happened. I tried to remember that I didn’t need to have a professional take on events and in fact that would kill the story. This was not an op-ed. I needed to write how things happened and how my characters experienced them. For better or worse, that’s what I did.
Throughout the novel, we get glimpses into places in Minneapolis—Pow Wow Grounds, Migizi—that are true to life. What are some of your go-to spots in the city?
Aside from Theodore Wirth Regional Park, some of my favorite places in Minneapolis–St. Paul include the Minnesota History Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, which has an extraordinary painting by Rembrandt (Lucretia), as well as terrific collections of Chinese art, contemporary art, and Native art. I also love the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and its renovation in 2017, which was overseen by [art curator] Olga Viso. One of my favorite pieces is a cottonwood tree, considered very significant by the Dakota people and also planted during an art project inspired by Joseph Beuys [that saw the planting of 7,000 trees throughout Minnesota from 1982 to 1987]. In the branches of this cottonwood tree hang wind chimes, [each tuned to a different note from] a piece by John Cage, [with the wind] playing a concert night and day. A new piece of sculpture by the Dakota artist Angela Two Stars will be dedicated soon, and there is an enigmatic structure, Black Vessel for a Saint, by Theaster Gates.
The pandemic has reshaped our cities—where do you think Minneapolis is headed?
I love how Minneapolis–St. Paul is becoming known for Indigenous food. Some of my favorites: Indigenous Food Lab, Pow Wow Grounds, Gatherings Cafe. I’m looking forward to Owamni, a new restaurant from Sean Sherman (also known as the Sioux Chef).
One thing that has shifted more during the pandemic is the giant trend toward Amazon, and a withering of wonderful small businesses. It dismays me to see so many small empty storefronts now. Small businesses are the life and vitality of communities. Maybe the government should tax Amazon and use the money to bail out small businesses.
You are also a character in the book, which is surprising and amusing: Is the Louise of The Sentence similar to the Louise outside of the book?
Making myself a character in this book was much harder than I thought. It is sad but true: Louise cleaning up a horrifying mess under the sink is from real life. I put this in because women artists have always been stuck with these tasks, and we do them, then get right back to art.
Nature also functions as a character. I love the moments when Tookie is listening to owls or walking home in the cold. What do Minnesota’s natural spaces mean to you?
Minneapolis had the good fortune of having an early visionary park planner, Theodore Wirth, who believed that parks are the most important aspects of cities and no resident should live farther than a mile from a park. Therefore Minneapolis is known as the city with the best park system in the U.S. There is always huge pressure from developers and even religious organizations to use parkland for private purposes. So the future of the system (ever more important, as the health and well-being of humans is directly related to existing in nature) rests with our Park and Recreation Board, which is independent from the city but is sometimes overruled by local and state interests. I am an advocate for as much green space in a city as possible, as well as a vibrant forest canopy of mature trees. It is one way to fight climate change.
Given the novel’s debate about the best wild rice, what’s your favorite wild rice grown in Minnesota?
I would never reveal my favorite wild rice!
What would you like travelers to know about the city you call home?
I would like visitors to know that we are situated on the stunningly beautiful banks of the Mississippi, and also that the Mississippi is endangered by Line 3, an unnecessary and unbelievably carbon-intensive oil pipeline crossing beneath its headwaters.
I am an advocate for as much green space in a city as possible, as well as a vibrant forest canopy of mature trees. It is one way fight climate change.
Throughout the novel, we trace the journey of a fictional Minneapolis bookstore as it, surprisingly, thrives during the pandemic, thanks to online and phone orders. At one point, Tookie says, “We were absolutely unprepared to be loved.” Did this reflect your own experience with Birchbark Books?
The way our business changed was the way the fictional store’s business changed. And we did feel loved. It was one of the solaces during the isolation—just knowing that we were important to other people.