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Louise Erdrich’s ‘The Sentence’ explores racial tensions in a divided Minneapolis

Transcript

Judy Woodruff: A new novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Minneapolis resident Louise Erdrich reflects on the city's upheaval in 2020 amid the pandemic and the police killing of George Floyd.

Jeffrey Brown has this look, as part of our ongoing arts and culture coverage, canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Another day in the life of a small independent bookstore, but this one in Minneapolis is a bit unusual. It has a confessional and a canoe overhead. It specializes in Native American literature and subjects.

And there's a ghost who hovers in the fiction section, a former customer who died, but refuses to leave. The store is real enough. It's called Birchbark Books. The ghost story is fiction, titled "The Sentence" written by a store owner and acclaimed novelist Louise Erdrich.

Louise Erdrich, Author, "The Sentence": I was always going to write a book about a ghost in a bookstore.

Jeffrey Brown: You -- because -- well, because...

Louise Erdrich: Why wouldn't you?

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Louise Erdrich: Why wouldn't you want to write about a haunted bookstore? Because there's so much life in a bookstore.

Now, a book is so much more than transactional object. The words are flooding in, and ideas are filling you and emotion. It's haunting in a good way.

Jeffrey Brown: But her story is also about a deeper and more painful hunting, of the city in which she lives in works, amid pandemic and the murder of George Floyd in South Minneapolis and the protests that followed.

It's told through the voice of a character named Tookie, a Native woman with her own difficult past.

Louise Erdrich: This is the first book I have ever written in real time.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Louise Erdrich: I'm still kind of aghast, because I didn't know how to handle all of this at all.

So, all I could do was try to keep it very narrowly focused through the eyes of one incredibly fallible character, one woman.

Jeffrey Brown: Was it hard to do? Was it a good escape from what was happening?

Louise Erdrich: It wasn't an escape. It was -- it was the most difficult piece of writing I have ever done.

Jeffrey Brown: Erdrich grew up in the Red River Valley of North Dakota, daughter of a German American father and Chippewa mother. She's a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, a tribal nation near the Canadian border, and much of her prolific and often bestselling writing novels, children's books, poetry is centered on the experience of indigenous people in the Upper Midwest.

"The Round House" won the 2012 National Book Award, "The Night Watchman" the 2021 Pulitzer Prize. It's a fictionalized account of her grandfather, Patrick Grouneau, a tribal leader, and his generation's struggle in the 1950s against so-called termination, an effort by the U.S. government to tear up treaties and take back tribal reservation lands.

Her way into difficult subjects, she told me on a walk along the Mississippi River, is always through stories.

Louise Erdrich: If you're going to talk about termination, it's really very technical and boring.

Jeffrey Brown: Right.

Louise Erdrich: But if you are seeing it through the eyes of someone who is suddenly faced with termination and really the extinction of one's standing in the world, and one's way of life, and one's very lives depend on the land, then it's very different. And then it becomes not a matter of politics, but a matter of what this does to a human being.

Jeffrey Brown: In "The Sentence," as in real life, Erdrich's Native characters join the protests, with a deep sense of a long history of police brutality aimed at American Indians who migrated or were pushed into the Twin Cities.

The characters to them, what's happening in real time, Minneapolis 2020, feels very familiar to them.

Louise Erdrich: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Did it feel familiar to you?

Louise Erdrich: Yes, in a terrible way. I think I felt like so many people did, that I felt a sense of failure.

Jeffrey Brown: In what sense?

Louise Erdrich: Well, I love this city. And the people who live in the city and work in the city, I think, feel a sense that the city failed miserably.

We can't live with this. Nobody can live with this. And, as well, we live in a city that has been divided, redlined. So many things that have been handed down through these decades and decades of systemic racism, it all came bubbling up, as it would.

Jeffrey Brown: There are also more hopeful themes embedded in "The Sentence" about the love of books.

Louise Erdrich: Do you like science fiction?

Jeffrey Brown: Erdrich herself loves nothing more than offering recommendations to an eager reader. Also, and especially, there's the portrait of those she calls Indigerati.

Jeffrey Brown: Native literature lovers, right?

(LAUGHTER)

Louise Erdrich: Yes, and immersed in their language and immersed in their worlds and setting their own agenda for life.

But I have four daughters. So, I was very -- I was really touched by them all the time.

Jeffrey Brown: One daughter, Persia, studied and now teaches the Native Ojibwe language to young children.

Louise Erdrich: There's a very deep thing that's happening there, because my grandfather was the last person in our family who spoke Ojibwe fluently.

And my daughter would have been able to speak with him. He had no one to really speak with at some point. But my daughter would have been able to speak with him. They're speaking the same language.

Jeffrey Brown: Her bookstore also exemplifies an exciting new chapter in American literature, an explosion of works in recent years by a new generation of Native writers.

Louise Erdrich: That was something that I always thought, it's going to happen, it's going to happen. And it started happening. And then, all of a sudden, it just -- it just blew up, as they say.

(LAUGHTER)

Jeffrey Brown: With Louise Erdrich, writer and bookstore owner, helping to lead the way.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Minneapolis.

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