Natashia Deón’s The Perishing & Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence
These two very different novels explore issues of race, gender, and the history of white supremacy in the US.
Natashia Deón’s new novel opens with a woman named Sarah Shipley writing from 2102, presenting a statement that resonates throughout the rest of this shifting narrative, “We’re all on the verge of somebody else’s violence.” The narrative abruptly shifts to August 1887, Nogales, Arizona, and Charlie: a young boy who tells us the story of Benjamin, former slave and Civil War soldier. He is also “First Granddaddy” to Charlie but never reappears in the novel. Charlie, we later learn, is also possibly Sarah who, in 2102, is on trial for murder and has lived more than one life. When she is reborn, she is “a new person—not always a woman, but always Black.” Through the conceit of an immortal narrator, Deón moves across eras to present an ongoing narrative of one woman’s resilience in the face of oppression and loss. Sarah (2102) tells us that “1930 was the decade I learned to fight back. To unlearn helplessness.” Sarah also tells us, “I don’t make myself small or silent. Not because of my skin or gender or class or neighborhood, religion,” and while these statements Sarah makes throughout the novel are powerful, I found myself wanting more of Sarah’s own story. Instead, she seems to exist primarily to frame the novel and provide a version of an omniscient narrator.
The central action of the novel takes place in 1930’s Los Angeles and is a richly drawn, at times thrilling, story. A young woman wakes up naked in an alley in 1930’s Los Angeles. She has no memory. She’s taken to a police station where she’s given the name “Louise” (or “Lou”) and a social worker assigns her to a foster family. With Lou’s story one of the main themes of the novel begins: a history of race in Los Angeles. As Sarah tells us, “Los Angeles has always been brown.” But as Lou observes in the police station, “There are no brown people here except the inmates, the workers, and me.” Her foster parents are strict but provide Lou with a safe home and access to education. She attends Jefferson High and makes friends with a Chinese-American girl, Esther, and a “not-nice white boy,” she calls Metal Wally. She and Wally join the student newspaper and later briefly work together at the L.A. Times. We learn that Lou heals quickly from any injury and she learns to hide this from others. She’s also a mimic: quick to learn other’s accents and body language. These details are part of how her immortality or otherness manifests (although we never really learn why or how she is this way).
In Part Two, Sarah (2102) tells us she’s losing her court case and Lou (1931) lands a job as a reporter at the L.A. Times. Esther, Lou’s friend, is hired as part of an acting troupe headed to Europe. Lou meets a Black firefighter, J. Clayton, who looks like a man she sees in her dreams. Her foster father dies and her foster mother tells her she’ll no longer be adopted, instead giving her money toward rent on an apartment in Boyle Heights. Shifting back to Sarah (2103), we learn she’s now in prison where she tells us that women in prison must “keep hold of … trust, respect, loyalty.” Sarah has decided to “practice kindness and live.” She no longer believes her words have power, “There was only one time when I thought I could change things … Lou’s stories sought to do that, make people care.” And yet, Sarah continues to write on her prison walls, “my confessions that’ll never be understood now” including a brief mention of hiding her “Moorish brown body” in 1507 Spain (a time when Islam was under attack by the Inquisition).
Meanwhile, Lou (1931) is writing obituaries for the L.A. Times, reporting on “the tragic deaths of colored people—all shades of brown: Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Indian, Native American, and, depending on our country’s mood, Irish Catholic.” For Lou, it’s a way to tell the stories of the marginalized, but she wants more. Her editor assigns her to cover “the colored perspective” on the creation of Route 66, built by using public domain to destroy non-white neighborhoods. Sarah (2107) slips in again, adding a seemingly out-of-place comment on wearing masks, “Like fighting against wearing a mask in a pandemic because you—personally—will likely recover if you get it? Forget other people you pass it to. If they die, it was because it was their time to.” Later, at a hearing in 1932 on Route 66, a woman shows up protesting the polio vaccine using rhetoric from 2021. (However much I agree, these mentions feel awkward and distract from the story). Lou’s narrative continues, weaving in discourse around race, religion, and culture, name-checking Aimee Semple McPherson, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, and William Mulholland and the 1928 collapse of the St. Francis Dam.
Part Three opens in 2117 with Sarah expounding on her views of Los Angeles, and then there is an abrupt shift back to Lou in 1932. Lou’s friend Esther is on the radio with Pearl S. Buck when she is arrested. Lou and their friend Goldie are also arrested but ultimately released. Lou then has a vision of Latasha Harlins’s murder and begs for a new future for Los Angeles, one where Black lives matter. She finally learns that there are other “immortals” like her, and she seeks guidance (which she doesn’t really get). At the conclusion of the novel, Lou survives an attack through the help of her friends, and finally, accepts her nature and opens herself to her next destination.
In 2021, Louise Erdich won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for The Night Watchman. Her new novel, The Sentence, is a deeply compelling, tragic, and at times darkly funny contemplation on language, books, systemic racism, and American life during the pandemic. The book begins with Tookie (Chippewa/Ojibwe and Métis) telling us that while in prison she received a dictionary from a former teacher. Sentenced to sixty years, she credits the dictionary with saving her from being “crushed.” She begins by looking up the word “sentence” and there begins her exploration of language. In 2005, she was arrested by then tribal policeman Pollux (Potawatomi) for transporting her crush Danae’s boyfriend Budgie’s body across state lines. Unfortunately, Tookie didn’t know there was crack cocaine taped to his body. Danae signed a check over to Tookie for her services but was quick to turn on her. While Tookie tells us her story, Erdich weaves in a broader message about systemic racism, but never in a way that feels awkward or unessential to the narrative, “Native Americans are the most oversentenced people currently imprisoned,” and “Minnesota alone imprisons three times as many women as all of Canada.” At one point during her incarceration, Tookie is moved to “seg,” (the segregation unit) for a year. There she has no access to books except the “library in my head.” Although she does eventually get access to the prison library and “read(s) everything,” once she is released, Tookie dreams of choosing a book from a bookshop. Somehow, she survives, and after a decade is released.
Tookie hunts for a job and is hired by the woman who sent her the dictionary, Jackie Kettle, who manages a bookstore. It’s a bookstore described as a “sweetgrass-smelling, scuffed-up eight-hundred-square-foot space stuffed with books” and owned by a woman named Louise (yes, this is Erdrich writing herself into her novel). The store features Native books and, seeing these, Tookie responds, “I realized we are more brilliant than I knew.” Soon after, she runs into Pollux and he hugs her, then proposes marriage, and she accepts. But then, in November 2019, one of her “most annoying customers,” Flora, dies, but does not disappear, and so begins one of the central themes of the novel: coping with our ghosts.
Tookie describes Flora as a “wannabe,” as in, she wants to be Indigenous—building a false identity for herself. At one point, Flora produces a photo of her great-grandmother who, according to Flora, “was ashamed of being Indian.” Tookie tells us this is “another common identity trope” enacted by white people—claiming a supposed Indigenous ancestor. Flora was not a bad person, Tookie tells us, fostering “Native teen runaways, raised money for a Native women’s refuge, worked in the community,” showing up at powwows and protests, and visiting her “favorite Native people, unannounced.” When Flora dies, she haunts the store. Tookie tries to get her to leave, but Flora is determined. Flora’s foster daughter, Kateri (named for Lily of the Mohawks) shows up at the bookstore with a book her mother was reading when she died. Tookie discovers that it’s a captivity narrative written by a Native woman who was “sentenced to be white.” As Tookie reads the narrative, she also provides us with some of the brutal history of the area: the state’s beginnings in “blood dispossession and enslavement.” She flips forward to the last page Flora read and feels herself threatened, dissolving. That night, the 102-year-old elm in her backyard falls, narrowly missing the house, where it would have killed her and her husband. She tries to burn the book (it won’t catch fire) and then buries it in her backyard, “This book had sentenced my most irritatingly faithful customer to death. It had tried to kill me too.” The book survives and Flora continues her haunting.
In January of 2020, Tookie tells us she felt she “should be doing something to get ready for something I could not define” and we can feel the tension build. Louise goes on a book tour while COVID starts to take hold. Hand sanitizer begins to appear, people are hoarding, and Tookie and her family face lockdown together (Pollux’s niece and newborn are visiting). The bookstore faces closure (“maybe for two months”)—as a favorite customer leaves, Tookie feels bereft, and we are reminded of the loss that was only beginning. Soon though, the bookstore is designated an essential business, and they go back to work. Flora begins to manifest physically, but only when Tookie is alone in the store. Flora’s demand, “Let me in.”
The book continues into May of 2020 detailing the personal and citywide crisis brought on by the murder of George Floyd. Pollux (ex-cop) and Tookie (ex-con) struggle through their own memories and their relationship as the city “grieved and burned.” Hetta (Pollux’s niece) goes to protest with Asema (from the bookstore) who states, “‘We have to stand with Black people because we know. The MPD has fucking done this to Indians since the beginning of this city. No, before that. They practiced on us in the Dakota War and ever since.” When the young women fail to return home, we feel Tookie’s stress, the fear they’ll be harmed, arrested, or catch the virus. And we feel her pain as she confronts her own history with police violence and incarceration, and her complicated relationship with Pollux (who suffers himself as both Indigenous and ex-cop). They struggle through, the month passes, and the bookstore survives unscathed, despite widespread fires and looting, but they’re swamped filling orders for books on “racism, race history, incarceration.” Hetta and Asema urge Tookie to join them at a healing dance at the George Floyd memorial and eventually, she dances. But her joy is short-lived: Flora returns in terrifying force, and Tookie is forced to take time off from the store. The last third of the book focuses on Tookie’s refusal to give up on Pollux after he contracts COVID and is hospitalized. We feel her determination and fear and deep love for her husband as she stays in a van in the hospital parking lot, waiting for word on his status and reflecting on her own life. She takes a brief break from her vigil, visiting Asema at the bookstore, where the shocking cause of Flora’s haunting is revealed. In true Erdrich fashion, the novel ends with some hope after a long, harrowing journey through our country’s violent past and troubled present. Tookie is a powerful narrator, full of complexity and a capacity for redemption and love that carries the weight of this brilliant novel. As she says, “Delight seems insubstantial; happiness feels more grounded; ecstasy is what I shoot for; satisfaction is hardest to attain.” This is a deeply moving and satisfying read.