Review 1867: Literary Wives! The Sentence

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs.

We would also like to welcome a new member, Rebecca of Bookish Beck! We are so glad to have her with us!

Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

My Review

Tookie spent the first decade or so of her adulthood getting wasted and falling into trouble with the law. When she was arrested by Pollux of the tribal police, though, she wasn’t even sure she had broken the law, or at least she didn’t see it that way. She had borrowed her previous employer’s van to bring the body of her friend’s boyfriend back to her from the woman her boyfriend left her for. But Tookie didn’t know the woman had taped packets of crack into the body’s armpits.

Both other women having lied about Tookie’s involvement in the crime, she had the bad luck to pull a judge who sentenced her to 60 years. What saved her in prison was reading.

Tookie’s lawyer never stopped working for her, so after ten years she was released for time served. She got a job at a bookstore in Minneapolis and married Pollux, no longer a cop.

Flora dies. Tookie describes her as the bookstore’s most irritating customer. The bookstore (which I believe is Birchbark Books, owned by Erdrich) specializes in books written by and about indigenous people. Flora was a wannabe, who claimed indigenous heritage based on a photo of an ancestor who looked possibly indigenous.

After her death, Tookie takes home a handwritten manuscript that Flora was holding when she died. It is difficult to read, but when Tookie makes out a particular sentence, she is horrified. She knows that reading this sentence was what killed Flora. She tries to burn the journal and finally buries it in the backyard.

Flora begins haunting Tookie at the bookstore. At first, no one else notices her, so Tookie is afraid she’s going mad. But then others hear her, and Tookie becomes afraid to work in the bookstore alone. The city becomes more chaotic with the arrival of Covid and later the events surrounding the murder of George Floyd.

This book explores what the living owe the dead, as well as what we owe ourselves. It is a book for book lovers and even ends with lists of favorite books, so of course it appealed to me.

Erdrich’s books can be difficult to read, but even though this one contains some tough scenes, she seems to be softening. Despite some hard subject matter, the novel is almost cozy, with a warm feeling of community centered around the bookstore, a loving marriage, an evolving family life for Tookie, and quirky, likable characters. Its overall feeling is of transcendence. It’s a lovely book.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

I had to reread this novel for the book club even though I had just read it a few months ago, because I hadn’t read it with our subject matter in mind. On second read, I liked this book even better than I did the first time.

We should all be so lucky as to have a marriage like that of Tookie and Pollux. Although they have a few small spats, for most of the novel, the two have a warm and accepting relationship. There is a little bit of a breakdown because Tookie feels she can’t tell Pollux about being haunted by Flora, but even that turns out to be a misunderstanding.

The biggest impact to their relationship comes with the murder of George Floyd and the resulting chaos around police violence. These events make Tookie face her feelings about Pollux having been a cop, especially because when she reached out to grasp his hands after her adventure with the corpse, he cuffed her. I believe this situation is made worse because of Pollux’s own ambivalence about the events surrounding the Floyd killing and his own former career. Tookie shows her feelings subtly, for example, by not wearing the jingle dress herself but giving it to Hetta to wear, but the couple know each other so well that he understands.

Basically, their relationship is so good that they weather their problems. Troubles come from not speaking about things, but eventually everything is discussed.

Related Posts

The Night Watchman

LaRose

The Bookshop

Review 1695: The Bridge of the Gods

A friend who knew I was writing a story set locally before the arrival of white men gave me The Bridge of the Gods, which was written in 1899 as a result of Balch’s years of collecting Native American folklore and customs in Oregon. The novel is based on a legend about a bridge of stone across the Columbia.

The novel begins in 17th century Massachusetts, where Reverend Cecil Grey feels the mission to preach Christianity to the indigenous people of the West and dreams of a huge stone bridge over a river. His wife having died, he sets off to do just that, accompanied by his Native American nurse.

Eight years later, Multnomah, chief of the Willamette tribe, decides to test his allies. His tribe is the leader of a confederation united against their enemies, the Spokanes and the Shoshoni. The ascendancy of the Willamettes is prophecied to last until the Bridge of the Gods, a massive stone arch over the Columbia River, is destroyed. However, Multnomah has been hearing that some tribes want to leave the confederation. He decides to summon all of the tribes for a great council on Wappatta Island (now Sauvie Island).

Multnomah has a beautiful daughter, Wallulah, whose mother was an Asiatic princess shipwrecked at the mouth of the Columbia. Multnomah wants to betroth her to Snohomish, chief of the Cayuses, to cement their alliance. Wallulah, having seen Snohomish once, is not averse—until Cecil Grey comes on the scene.

I didn’t expect much from the attitudes of this book, considering when it was written, and I didn’t get much. Despite the young Balch having been interested enough to travel around and interview indigenous people, they are referred to constantly as savages, their traditions are treated with abhorrence, their villages are described as degraded, they are shown as violent and cruel. Even Multnomah, who compared to Snohomish is a good guy, is depicted as obdurate and cruel. Grey’s faithful nurse doesn’t even have a name.

Only Wallulah escapes this treatment, but note that she is half “Asiatic” (and a confused half at that, for her mother is said to have taught the Willamettes something about Buddha but calls god Allah). Her mother is described as white. Wallulah is herself a typical late 19th century romantic heroine, fragile and weak and a completely unlikely indigenous woman.

Although this novel is billed as a romance, Grey’s struggle is between his mission and Wallulah (even though they do not seem mutually exclusive), and since Grey is a zealot, Wallulah doesn’t have much of a chance. This is actually a romance in the older sense of the word, an adventure novel.

Since Balch went to so much trouble to personally speak to indigenous peoples and collect stories, I was hoping this book would be a little more enlightened—say, perhaps, written by someone who actually liked the people. It wasn’t. If you’re interested in an older book based in the life of indigenous peoples, I recommend The Loon Feather.

Related Posts

The Loon Feather

Caleb’s Crossing

One Thousand White Women

Review 1552: The Beadworkers

The Beadworkers is a collection of short stories but also some poems and a play about the experience of American indigenous peoples in the Northwest, past and present. These works provide insight into religion, thinking, and beliefs of these peoples. Most of the stories are set in Oregon.

Many of the stories center around feasts. The first entries, a poem called “Feast I” and a story called “Feast II,” are about the importance of water. “Feast III” is about Mae, a woman who has decided to become a migrant laborer after the death of her husband.

“The News of the Day” is set in 19th century Boston, where Charles and his roommate are studying. On the same day, they receive news of family deaths, Marcel’s father from illness in Paris, Charles’s family in a battle of the Indian Wars.

In “Fish Wars,” set in the 1970’s, a schoolgirl fears her parents are getting a divorce. In actuality, her father is fishing and getting arrested for it in hopes of winning rights to fish in ancestral waters.

One of my favorites was “Beading Lesson,” in which an aunt instructs her niece in how to make beaded earrings, all the while mildly regretting that her sister, the girl’s mother, never learned to bead. In “wIndin!” an artistic young woman designs a Native American version of monopoly and tells about her relationship with Trevor, a Yakama gay man. Another favorite is “Katydid,” about the relationship between two young women, one who has abandoned her family because of their brutality, the other who has been abandoned by them.

Many of the stories evoke a sense of loss, as in “Falling Crows,” about the family’s reaction to a young man returned maimed from war, but most of them end in affirmation of some kind.

These stories are powerful and sparely written. Except for the final play, a reworking of “Antigone,” I really enjoyed them.

Related Posts

There There

The Round House

Folktales of the Native American