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Excerpt from The Sentence by Louise Erdrich, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Sentence

by Louise Erdrich

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich X
The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
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    Nov 2021, 400 pages

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Elisabeth Cook
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Earth to Earth

While in prison, I received a dictionary. It was sent to me with a note. This is the book I would take to a deserted island. Other books were to arrive from my teacher. But as she had known, this one proved of endless use. The first word I looked up was the word 'sentence.' I had received an impossible sentence of sixty years from the lips of a judge who believed in an after- life. So the word with its yawning c, belligerent little e's, with its hissing sibilants and double n's, this repetitive bummer of a word made of slyly stabbing letters that surrounded an isolate human t, this word was in my thoughts every moment of every day. Without a doubt, had the dictionary not arrived, this light word that lay so heavily upon me would have crushed me, or what was left of me after the strangeness of what I'd done.


I was at a perilous age when I committed my crime. Although in my thirties, I still clung to a teenager's physical pursuits and mental habits. It was 2005, but 1999 was how I partied, drinking and drugging like I was seventeen, although my liver kept try- ing to tell me it was over an outraged decade older. For many reasons, I didn't know who I was yet. Now that I have a better idea, I will tell you this: I am an ugly woman. Not the kind of ugly that guys write or make movies about, where suddenly I have a blast of blinding instructional beauty. I am not about teachable moments. Nor am I beautiful on the inside. I enjoy lying, for instance, and am good at selling people useless things for prices they can't afford. Of course, now that I am rehabilitated, I only sell words. Collections of words between card- board covers.

Books contain everything worth knowing except what ultimately matters.


The day I committed my crime, I was sprawled at the skinny white feet of my crush Danae, trying to deal with an interior swarm of ants. The phone rang and Danae fumbled the receiver to her ear. She listened, jumped up, shrieked. Clasped the phone with both hands and screwed her face shut. Then her eyes water- bugged open.

He died in Mara's arms. God, oh god. She doesn't know what to do with his body!

Danae flung the phone away and vaulted back onto the couch, howling and thrashing her spidery arms and legs. I crawled under the coffee table.

'Tookie! Tookie! Where are you?'

I dragged myself up onto her cabiny moose pillows and tried to soothe my deranged dear, rocking her, clutching her frowsy yellow head against my shoulder. Though she was older than me, Danae was spindly as a downy pre-woman. When she curled against me, I felt my heart surge and I became her shield against the world. Or maybe bulwark gives a more accurate picture.

'It's all right, you are safe,' I said in my huskiest voice. The harder she wept the happier I felt.

'And don't forget,' I said, pleased by her needy snuffling, 'you're a big winner!'

Two days before, Danae had scored a once-in-a-lifetime casino win. But it was too soon to talk about the beautiful future. Danae was clutching her throat, trying to tear out her windpipe, banging her head on the coffee table. Filled with an uncanny strength, she smashed a lamp and tried to gouge herself with a shard of plastic. Even though she had everything to live for.

'Fuck the win. I want him! Budgie! Oh Budgie, my soul!'

She rammed me off the couch.

'He should be with me, not her. Me not her.'

I had heard this rave for the past month. Danae and Budgie had planned to run off together. A complete overthrow of reality. Both had claimed they'd stumbled into an alternate dimension of desire. But then the old world clobbered them. One day Budgie sobered up and went back to Mara, who was not such a bad person. For instance, she'd got clean and stayed clean. Or so I thought. For now it was possible that Budgie's effort at getting normal again had failed. Though it is normal to die.

Excerpted from The Sentence by Louise Erdrich. Copyright © 2021 by Louise Erdrich. Excerpted by permission of Harper. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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