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Native American Novelist on 'The Sentence' and Living 'in a Haunted Age'

Pulitzer Prize winner Louise Erdrich discusses navigating between Native American and white Cultures​

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Courtesy Jenn Ackerman

Expectations are always high with the arrival of a new novel by Louise Erdrich, 67, and for good reason: She’s the beloved author of the stunning National Book Award winner The Round House and last year's Pulitzer Prize winner The Night Watchman, among more than 20 other books. Many of them open a window into Native American lives — something that Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, can do like few other writers of her literary stature.

Her latest novel, The Sentence, comes out on Nov. 9. It's a topical story with a bit more humor than her other books. Set in Minneapolis from All Souls’ Day 2019 to All Souls’ Day 2020, it features Tookie, a Native American woman with a troubled past who works at a bookstore that showcases mainly Indigenous American authors. Tookie’s unmoored by the frequent and seriously creepy appearance of the ghost of Flora — a white woman and former customer who had desperately wanted to be Indigenous. Tookie struggles to understand what in the world Flora wants from her while contending with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and her city in an uproar over George Floyd’s murder.  

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The story is not only unusually funny for an Erdrich novel but also seems more personal than some of her other works. Erdrich, after all, owns an independent bookstore in Minneapolis, Birchbark Books, focused on indigenous authors and crafts. But, she tells us, she’s haunted by things other than ghosts.

The author spoke with AARP about how her childhood and her heritage influence her work and about the impact of racism on today's society.

When were you hooked on being a writer?

​I was at Dartmouth. Sometime during my education there, I began to realize I could write. I wrote an incredible amount of nonsense for years and years. Most of what I wrote about was my all-consuming emotions. I was someone who lived at a very high emotional pitch. ​​

You were a drama queen?

A drama queen is outward. I was inward. I don’t think people knew that I was very emotional. In fact, people thought that I was just stoned all the time in college. But I was living large in my introspective world.​​

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Has your writing changed as you’ve aged?​

I’m able to stand back and assess what I’m doing and where I’m going. I have patience that I didn’t have before. One thing about aging is that you have a greater ability to synthesize information. I can finish things now that I started 20 or even 30 years ago but didn’t have the wherewithal back then to complete. For example, my last book, The Night Watchman [based on her grandfather’s battle to save his tribe from being terminated by the federal government]. I had all the information to write it earlier, but I didn’t have the accumulated knowledge or the kind of humor my grandfather had until I was in my 60s.​​

What intrigues you about writing?

​The clarity. I like it when I can make sense of something that has happened. I also like the comic aspects of our humanity. I like who we are when we’re funny.​​

You said that writing saved your life. What did you mean by that?

​It’s still happening every time I begin to write something. Partway through my new book, The Sentence, I thought, I don’t want anything to happen to me. Not because of how it would affect my children but because of the main character, Tookie. I wanted to know what she was going to say and how the story would end. ​​

You grew up in North Dakota, home of the Turtle Mountain Reservation. Your mother was part Ojibwa and part French, and your father was German American. Was it hard navigating both cultures?

It was complicated, but I’ve found things that resonate through both cultures that have helped me understand how to be in the world. My mother grew up on the reservation, and her father was a truck farmer who learned how to farm without using a single chemical. So we had a huge organic garden. My mother canned everything, my father hunted, and we all foraged for mushrooms. We lived with a very small carbon footprint. ​​

What does Ojibwa culture teach about aging?

The Ojibwa people call old people wisdom keepers. They are treasures. They’re also the funniest people in the community. Elders have the freedom to tease anybody. Now I’m at the age when I should be an elder, but I don’t feel like it. I’m just not that wise.​​

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HarperCollins Publishers / Jenn Ackerman

What inspired you to write The Sentence? 

​I’ve always wanted to write a ghost story, and I thought this would be a good time to do it. But when I started working on the book, I realized that everything the world is going through right now is because we live in a haunted age. We’re haunted by the legacy of racism, by our overuse of the world’s resources and by this invisible, unknowable illness. ​ ​

Is that what’s haunting you now?

​I’m entering my third act, and I’m thinking a lot about what it means to be an older person. At this age you begin to relive a lot of your life. You think, What did I do that was tremendous and what didn’t come up to the mark? Right now we should be looking out for the people who are coming after us, the children of the future. It’s obvious to all of us that we have enjoyed the fruits of the earth and pushed it over the edge, so the people coming into the world now — our beloved children and grandchildren — won’t have much left.​​

What’s the biggest obstacle to changing that?​

Denial. I live in a state of denial most of the time because it’s the only way that I can survive mentally and do my work. But it has become apparent to me that I can no longer ignore it. Climate change is the biggest injustice that we’re visiting upon future generations, the people who will have to live with the dregs of what we’ve enjoyed.​​

Don’t you think this will require older people to adopt a broader, more selfless identity?

​I’m calling on people to think about what’s really important. And what could be more important than having a place to exist? This goes well beyond what you’ve accomplished in life. It’s an identity that goes to the core of who we are as human beings. Are we a people who are going to eat everything up and leave the crumbs? Or are we a people who our children will look at and say, “They gave everything — to their last atom — for us so that we could live now”? ​

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