It’s been three years of pandemic and we’re not really out of the wilderness yet. I may not Google my state’s Covid numbers anymore, but the virus still seems to stalk most gatherings. Visions of a once-hoped-for post-pandemic world have unraveled; we’re left with more of the same. Perhaps that’s why, on a perfectly still and sunny day, my skin will prickle with the sense that a pandemic-less path is nearby, running alongside us. Confronted with this parallel world, I feel not a yearning to return to normal, but rather a dissatisfaction that we’ve given up on trying to change. “We are not living an era of change but a change of era,” Pope Francis said—in 2015. Despite opportunities to chart new courses, we tend to stick with the old. For those of us who have walked in darkness, how do we open ourselves to Isaiah’s great light? In hard times, friends offered me books that inspired new ways of thinking. Through their loving suggestions, I now have three to offer you.
Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence (Harper Perennial, $14.40, 400 pp.), set mostly in the first year of the pandemic, functions as a perfect antidote to works that force us to relive too literally those unsettling moments of 2020. Erdrich gives us a ghost story instead, whose protagonist is Tookie—self-described as on “the wrong side of the statistics”—who credits both her sense of oblivion and her resilience to a lucky-gened ancestor “who survived all of the Old World diseases that descended upon us.” After years in prison, she now sells books at an independent bookstore in Minneapolis, where in November 2019 she becomes haunted by the ghost of Flora, the store’s most annoying customer and a wannabe Indigene. As Tookie begins to investigate the book that killed Flora—literally, reading the book was fatal—the past begins to manifest itself. Flora soon proves to be one of many specters wandering in Covid’s diseased air. There’s more that haunts Tookie than she lets in, and other characters and places are revealed to be haunted as well. Through lockdown and George Floyd’s murder, things veer even more out of control.
There’s an understated brilliance in how the novel depicts the inexorable approach of a mental breakdown. Tookie’s time in prison includes a period she likens to “the blank pages in a diary,” loaded with meaning but unspeakable all the same. Over time, details emerge as Tookie tries to understand how to vanquish her ghost. Her coping mechanism in prison was “to read with a force that resembled insanity,” something that later aids her ability to read what Flora’s ghost wants. And as Flora becomes more plainly visible, so too does Tookie’s past: “I became aware of my thoughts. My brain began combing apart the strands of what had happened during the years of my incarceration.” Erdrich deftly plays the reader’s expectations of what’s real off what seems unreal: Is Tookie just losing her grip on sanity, or is the ghost the cause of the chaos? The Sentence masterfully asserts that it can be both.
Even as the novel tackles the pandemic and racial reckoning, it’s also full of love and humor. The eccentricities of life at a bookstore are on full display, and there are even book lists in the final pages. Erdrich herself appears in the narrative. And throughout, there’s appreciation for the range of things that offer to transform us, whether it be a confessional, a jingle dress, or, of course, a sentence.
In recent years, many people I admire have returned to the Psalms. This was often a search not for strength but for validation: we also feel loss, helplessness, anger. A welcome if non-canonical spin comes from the realm of science fiction: A Psalm for the Wild-Built (Tordotcom, $20.99, 160 pp.) by Becky Chambers. In this solarpunk novella, a monk, Sibling Dex, is moved to change their vocation by the desire to hear cricket song, something that has practically gone extinct in the transition of human society away from industry and fossil fuels. While life as a Tea Monk (work that is simply understood as “listen to people, give tea”) offers Dex a chance to travel around the outer villages, brewing tea does not bring Dex closer to cricket song, prompting their quest into the wilderness. Along the way, Dex encounters a robot—Splendid Speckled Mosscap—on a quest of its own: finding out what human beings need. On their way to a remote hermitage, Dex and Mosscap take up philosophical conversations about robot consciousness, human nature, and purpose.