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.

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Review 1592: The Night Watchman

There is always something that keeps my attention in Louise Erdrich’s books, although often they are very sad. In 1953, the United States Congress announced a program of “emancipation” of more than 100 First Nations tribes that was expressed as a program to put indigenous people on an equal footing with other Americans but was actually a way to yet again abrogate treaties and take land. Louise Erdrich’s grandfather helped save the Turtle Mountain Chippewa from this fate all while working full-time as a night watchman. The Night Watchman is Erdrich’s novel about this event.

Thomas Wazhashk, a member of the tribal council, receives a copy of the bill and figures out its intent from its bland, bureaucratic language. He gets the council to collect signatures on a petition and begins collecting information to support the tribe’s stance that its members are too poor to care for themselves so local authorities will have to take on the burden if the federal government doesn’t, this obviously a ploy to get support from state and local authorities to oppose the bill. While he works, he is visited by an owl and the ghost of an old friend who died as a boy after being imprisoned in the basement of a state boarding school.

As usual with Erdrich, aside from the main plot, the novel is full of interesting characters and subplots. Pixie Paranteau takes time off from work to try to find her sister Vera, who has vanished in Minneapolis after leaving to marry her boyfriend. On the train, she encounters Wood Mountain, a young boxer on his way to a fight, but when the fight is cancelled, he decides to make sure Pixie is all right.

Millie Cloud is the woman whom Thomas asks to share the results of the survey on the living conditions of the tribe that she wrote for her doctoral dissertation. She is socially awkward and dresses in geometric patterns.

This novels felt more hopeful than some of Erdrich’s even though it also contained scenes of brutality. My attention was engrossed by it.

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Day 1190: LaRose

Cover for LaRoseSet in 1999 on a North Dakota reservation, LaRose is about how a community, but in particular two families, are affected by a horrible accident. Out hunting a deer on his property, Landreaux Iron kills Dusty, the young son of his best friend, Peter Ravich, when Dusty falls out of a tree as Landreaux takes his shot.

To try to make amends, Landreaux, who has turned to the old ways to throw off addiction and straighten out his life, offers the Ravich family his own young son, LaRose, to raise. Nola Ravich, Dusty’s mother, is eaten up with hatred against the Irons, even Emmaline, who is her half sister. But having LaRose helps. Emmaline, however, can’t be expected to give up her son forever.

LaRose is the latest in a long line of LaRoses, all of whom had a special connection with the spirit world. LaRose finds himself able to help Nola and her neglected daughter, Maggie, even though he is only a small boy.

Another significant character is Romeo, who long ago was Landreaux’s best friend. He bears Landreaux a grudge because of an incident years before. Slowly, he works at his resentment despite the Irons having taken in his son Julius to raise.

Although I occasionally got distracted by how diffuse the plot is and how many directions it goes, in the main I enjoyed this novel. It isn’t nearly as depressing as a lot of Erdrich’s work, and it paints a powerful portrait of these two families. Dealing with forgiveness, of oneself and others, grief, guilt, and other human complexities, it is a strong novel.

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Day 810: The Round House

Cover for The Round HouseThe Round House looks back to 1988, to traumatic events in the life of 13-year-old Joe Coutts and his family. Joe has had a comfortable life for a kid living on the reservation. His father is a tribal judge, and his mother is a social worker. They live in a homey, not fancy house, and his mother keeps a beautiful flower and vegetable garden.

Joe is enjoying the summer as any 13-year-old might, sometimes running around with his friends, sometimes helping out at home. One Sunday he is digging out saplings that have worked their way into the foundation of their house. His mother has run out to the office to pick up a file. She is usually very punctual, but he and his father realize she has not returned at her usual time. The two decide to go get her.

They pass her coming home, but it is not until they arrive home that they discover something horrible has happened. Joe’s mother has been raped and brutally beaten. They rush her to the hospital.

When the police come, she will not talk about what happened except for the broadest outlines. She was kidnapped from the old ceremonial Round House and taken somewhere else to be assaulted. She escaped after her attacker doused her with gasoline and went for matches. After she returns from the hospital, she retreats to her room.

Because of complicated laws related to who has jurisdiction over what type of crimes and where they are committed, Joe’s father begins trying to sort out how a prosecution could be pursued when they find the rapist. This task is made more difficult by the insistence of Joe’s mother that she doesn’t know where she was when she was raped. Joe himself starts looking for evidence of who could have committed the crime.

Like most of Erdrich’s novels set on the reservation, this novel is as much about heartbreaking experiences as anything else. Erdrich points out in the Afterword that up to 1/3 of Native American women are raped on the reservation, mostly by men who are not Native American. She says that this number is almost certainly an understatement, because Native American women don’t want to report rape. Many of these incidents cannot be prosecuted because of jurisdictional problems.

There were a few things that bothered me about this story, particularly that Joe doesn’t connect some money he finds near the scene of the crime with the crime or that he and his friends drink some beer they find even though they think it is connected with the crime and could be a clue. Even at 13 and in 1988, they had to have watched more crime shows than that.

In general, though, this is compelling reading, about the change in Joe’s family, about how fast he is forced to grow up, about the limitations of justice on the reservation.

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Day 179: Shadow Tag

Cover for Shadow TagWhen Irene America takes out her diary one day, she realizes that her husband Gil has been reading it. She is outraged, so she starts another diary, a true one, which she keeps in a safe deposit box at the bank. In her original diary, she begins inserting falsehoods to torment Gil. The disintegration of their marriage is the plot of the disturbing Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich.

Irene wants to leave Gil. He is manipulative and abusive to her and their three children. His moods are mercurial–even the dogs are wary of him. He is obsessively jealous, to the point of resenting the attention Irene gives their children.

Irene is not perfect either. She drinks too much and resorts to subterfuge and manipulation. She is alternately endeared and repelled by Gil’s attempts to win her back.

Gil is a successful Native American artist who has painted only Irene for years, but now she finds his depictions of her degrading. Still, she doesn’t have the courage to leave him, which will have fateful results. The tension in the novel builds to a surprising and tragic finish.

A detached omniscient narrator alternates telling the story with the two diaries written by Irene. You do not find out who the omniscient narrator is until the last chapter.

I can’t help but wonder how much of this psychological novel is a fictionalized account of Erdrich’s marriage to Michael Dorris. I see now that a review in the Washington Post agrees. If so, it is a masterly and brave work of self-exposure that faithfully shows the unpredictability of marital relationships. It is extremely well written and very sad. If you require likeable characters in your fiction, you won’t find them here, however.