Literary Wives Club: The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

This has been my first read with the Literary Wives online book club. The other members will also be posting their thoughts this week; we consider four books per year in total.


See also the reviews by:

Kay at What Me Read

Lynn at Smoke & Mirrors

Naomi at Consumed by Ink

 

I wrote a general review of The Sentence in April when it was on the Women’s Prize longlist (it has since advanced to the shortlist). This time I’m focusing on the relationship between Tookie and Pollux. The central question we ask about the books we read for Literary Wives is:

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

~SPOILERS IN THIS ONE~

There are some unusual aspects to the central marriage in this novel. For one thing, Pollux, a former tribal policeman, was the one to arrest Tookie. For another, although he is a “ceremony man” keeping up Native American rituals (e.g., burning sweetgrass and receiving an eagle corpse from the government to make a fan), he doesn’t believe in ghosts, so Tookie keeps Flora’s haunting of the bookshop from him, as well as from some of her colleagues. For a time, this secret makes Tookie feel like she’s facing the supernatural alone.

Pollux does not, cumulatively, get a lot of page time in the novel, yet I got the sense that he was always there in the background as support. Their relationship is casual and sweet, with lots of banter and a good dollop of sex considering they’re some way into middle age. Clearly, they rely on each other. Their marriage keeps Tookie grounded even when traumatic memories or awful current events rear up.

Now I live as a person with a regular life. A job with regular hours after which I come home to a regular husband. … I live the way a person does who has ceased to dread each day’s ration of time. I live what can be called a normal life only if you’ve always expected to live such a way. If you think you have the right. Work. Love. Food. A bedroom sheltered by a pine tree. Sex and wine.

The thing I knew was that if anything happened to Pollux I would die too. I would be happy to die. I would make sure that I did.

With the latter passage in mind, I did fear the worst when Pollux caught Covid and was hospitalized; I was as relieved as Tookie when he was discharged.

Along with Pollux comes his daughter, Hetta, and her baby son Jarvis. Tookie and Hetta had generally been cool towards each other, but the presence of the baby and the lockdown situation soften things between them. Having never been a maternal sort, Tookie falls completely in love with Jarvis and takes every excuse to babysit him. This gives us a welcome glimpse into another aspect of her character.

I noted a couple of other passages where rituals have practical or metaphorical significance for the central relationship:

At a New Year’s buffet: “a wild rice argument can wreck friendships, kill marriages, if allowed to rage.”

“You let the logs burn long enough so they made a space between them. You gotta keep the fire new. Every piece of wood needs a companion to keep it burning. Now push them together. Not too much. They also need that air. Get them close, but not on top of each other. Just a light connection all the way along. Now you’ll see a row of even flames.”

Pollux is literally instructing Tookie in how to light a fire there, but could just as well be prescribing what makes a marriage work. Connection but a bit of distance; support plus freedom. Their existence as a couple seems to achieve that. They have their individual lives with separate jobs and hobbies, but also a cosy bond that buoys them.


Next book: Red Island House by Andrea Lee in September.

10 responses

  1. That’s a nice observation about the fire-building passage, and the point about the marriage keeping Tookie grounded is a good one.

    On a point not to do with our wives discussion, I didn’t mind the supernatural aspect to the novel or think it made it silly, because in some ways it was almost like Tookie’s subconscious was trying to tell her something of her debt to Flora and her memories of her mother that she had been trying to ignore.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like your point about the ghost being connected to her subconscious. Magic realist elements can be hit or miss for me. I think this novel could have been just as strong without them, but it didn’t hugely affect my enjoyment.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I actually don’t usually like magical realism much, but it worked for me here, maybe because I have family members who have had some unexplainable experiences.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I love that connection you make between marriage and fire-building. It describes perfectly the marriage I feel like they have. Except that quote about wanting to die if Pollux dies niggles at me. Maybe it was just fear talking in the moment, but it made me wonder if Tookie relies too much on Pollux to provide her with a feeling of value. Without him, would she go back to the way she was living before prison? (I was also terrified he was going to die!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is a danger, isn’t it? Relying too much on another person for security or getting practical needs met. I’ll never forget Diana Athill saying she never married because she didn’t want that “crutch.”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Interesting! I didn’t know that about Athill. After thinking about that for about 2 seconds, I’ve decided that I’m very happy to have that crutch! lol

        Like

      2. I agree, I’m grateful to have someone cook for me 😉

        Like

  3. I really need to read this, don’t I? I have added it to my List To Look Out For In The Charity Shops Round Here but it might get promoted to my Book Token Splurge List!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Laura makes a strong case for it being the likely winner of the Women’s Prize. Finding the hardback in a charity shop would be quite the coup! But I’ve had some lucky moments like that over the years. I hope you enjoy it when you do get hold of it.

      Liked by 1 person

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