A memorial cemetery in Minneapolis to black people killed by police

Memorial gravestones for black people killed by police are surrounded by snow at Say Their Names Cemetery on December 12, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

News that the United States now counts 800,000-plus deaths from COVID-19 — more than reported in any country in the world — made headlines earlier this week. The worldwide number of reported deaths was nearing 5.5 million, with no way of knowing how many more have gone unreported. On that same day, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pleadded guilty to , the same day I turned the last pages of Louise Erdrich’s most recent novel, “The Sentence.” It also was the same day that former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pleaded guilty to federal charges of violating the constitutional rights of George Floyd when he knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, causing his death.

All that was the same day I turned the last pages of Louise Erdrich’s most recent novel, “The Sentence.”

Author and poet Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich

Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, has won both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for her fiction. She has lived much of her life in Minneapolis, and owns a sweet neighborhood bookstore and art shop called Birchbark. Dogs are welcome. Good people, too. And there are resident ghosts.

Those ghosts provide the inspiration and story spine of “The Sentence,” which is set in Erdrich’s bookstore. But what really haunts throughout are the specters of COVID and racial divide put into high relief by yet another murder of a black man by a white cop. What stalks the soul is injustice — the kind with no provocation but differences in class and color.

Getting to the heart of what’s real

I lived in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul for what I consider my Wonder Bread adult years. I left for the West Coast 27 years ago, but still consider it my heart’s home. It fit me, like that pair of jeans faded to the color of the lakes in autumn, or the hollow in a much-used reading chair. The Cities had their issues, of course, and a decidedly uncomfortable history with race. But we prided ourselves on our communal, progressive outlook. We had evolved.

That’s where the end of Erdrich’s book caught my breath. Throughout I was heartsick at the descriptions of the destruction and violence ripping through its tidy streets in the wake of Floyd’s death. I was exhausted by even the most gentle of passages about the isolation of COVID, and the workarounds people found to create some sense of community.

All an engaging tour through one city that stood in for any cit in America in 2020. And then came those last pages.

Erdrich, who knows the city as it is now — not as I remember it — and sees it through prisms of race and culture that I can only access second- and third-hand, digs her quirky, often funny story into a place that strikes a deeper truth. It’s one many of my Minnesota friends have wrestled with, and that man reporters — local and national — have tried to put into sourcing and sentences.

Erdrich’s main character, Tookie, is coming to terms with many things in her life: Her childhood, her marriage, her anger, her ghost. She is listening to her husband’s daughter and grandson at play:

I’d never heard laughter so musical, like bells, yet I could also feel how my heart had cracked like a windshield, the minute split traveling slowly through the glass. I should do something. I should get it repaired, I thought. The crevice was edging deeper. Everything seemed to be cracking: windows, windshields, hearts, lungs, skulls. We may be a striver city of blue progressives in a sea of red, but we are also a city of historically sequestered neighborhoods and old hates that die hard or leave a residue that is invisible to the well and wealthy, but chokingly present to the ill and the exploited. Nothing good will come of it, or so I thought.

It’s the rare and precious book that puts what you feel into the right words. The challenge for journalism is to sometimes do the same.

Further Reading