Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
The Beet Queen narrates the adventures of several characters of mixed Native American and European background from Louise Erdrich’s first novel, Love Medicine (1985), as they interact with Mary and Karl Adare. The novel illuminates the lives of these characters over a forty-year period.
The Beet Queen’s sixteen chapters fall into four parts. Most are recounted by a single character; some are told by several characters. The chapters include short scenes sketched by an omniscient narrator who seems more detached than the characters. Each chapter is dated to give the reader some sense of time, but the chapters are not chronological in the traditional sense. Told and retold by different characters, the events repeat, circle, overlap, and digress.
Erdrich centers her novel on the adventures of Mary Adare, whose father is dead and whose mother abandons her and her two brothers at a fair by flying off with a stunt aviator. After the baby brother is snatched by a recently bereaved father, eleven-year-old Mary and her older brother, Karl, take a freight train to see their Aunt Fritzie and her husband, Uncle Pete, who are butchers in Argus, North Dakota. On arrival, Karl is mysteriously drawn to a flowering tree, where he is attacked by a dog; he escapes by running back to the train and leaving town. Mary plods on to the butcher shop and is taken in by her aunt and uncle, although their daughter, Sita, resents her...
(The entire section is 780 words.)
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Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Louise Erdrich’s second novel, The Beet Queen, is centered in the fictional little town of Argus, somewhere in North Dakota. Unlike her other novels of people living on reservations, the characters in this story are mostly European Americans, and those Native Americans who exist have very tenuous ties to their roots and to the reservation that lies just outside the town. Racism, poverty, and cultural conflict are not in the foreground in this novel, which makes it different from most novels by Native American authors. Instead, European Americans, Native Americans, and mixed bloods are all in the same economic and cultural situation, and each of them is involved in a search for identity.
The prose in The Beet Queen is lyrical and finely crafted, as is evident in the description of Mary Adare, the novel’s central character. Abandoned by a mother who literally vanishes in the air, she builds her identity by developing a solid grounding. She is described as heavy and immovable, and she makes a home for herself in a butcher shop that is described as having thick walls and green, watery light coming through glass block windows. She has found an earthy den, which attaches her to the one thing that will never abandon her—the earth. Her brother, Karl, is her opposite. Thin, flighty, always moving, he is a European American who fits perfectly the archetype of the Native American trickster figure. He is the destroyer, lover of men and women,...
(The entire section is 402 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Eleven-year-old Mary Adare and her brother, Karl, who is fourteen years old, are left penniless with their mother, Adelaide, after her married lover dies. It is 1932, and many people are suffering through the Great Depression. Adelaide tries to keep the family together by pawning her few bits of jewelry, but this fails to bring in enough money. In desperation, she leaves Mary, Karl, and her newborn baby to fend for themselves, leaving them for stunt pilot Omar. Adelaide and Omar fly off in his barnstorming plane, never to return. The children are left to care for the baby. When things get even more desperate, Mary and Karl give their unnamed baby brother to the Millers, Catherine and Martin.
Mary and Karl hop a freight car for Argus, where their aunt, Fritzie Adare Kozka, runs a butcher shop. Mary arrives safely with a little box containing her mother’s garnet necklace, but Karl, after arriving with Mary in Argus, jumps back on the train. Fritzie and her husband take Mary in, give her a bed in their daughter Sita’s room, and give her some of Sita’s old clothes, sparking a lifelong jealousy in Sita.
Mary discovers that the necklace box contains only a pawn ticket. She puts this disappointment behind her and busies herself with the butcher shop and with school. She becomes friends with Celestine James, once Sita’s closest friend. Celestine is more like Mary—competent and practical—than like Sita—who has romantic notions about...
(The entire section is 1208 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
In the opening episode of “The Beet Queen” (a six-paragraph prologue that displays the author’s flair for the dramatic), Mary, a girl of eleven, and her fourteen-year-old brother Karl leap from a boxcar in the sugar beet valley of fictional Argus, North Dakota, and head for the home of their Aunt Fritzie, who, with her husband Pete, runs a reasonably successful butcher shop. As they walk through the streets, a fierce dog frightens them. Mary runs toward the butcher shop and Karl runs back to the boxcar in a scene reminiscent of the flight of Mendel and Isaac from Ginzburg in Bernard Malamud’s short story “Idiots First.” However, in “The Beet Queen,” it is not Death pursuing the youngsters; it is Life.
Following this prologue, recounted by a third-person narrator, the rest of the story is told in the first-person voice of the little girl, Mary. She recounts the events that led to this fateful train ride, as well as her experience following it, beginning her story with the grain-loading accident that killed her father and the sad relocation of his pregnant widow and two small children to the Cities. There, they are reduced to penury and the new baby brother is born. “We should let it die,” she recalls her mother telling her, “I won’t have any milk. I’m too thin.” Some weeks later, Mary recounts, with an eviction notice in hand they stumble on a country fair called “The Orphan’s Picnic,” where all three children are...
(The entire section is 593 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In The Beet Queen, Erdrich shifts her main focus from the American Indian to the European immigrant side of her background, creating in impressive detail the fictional town of Argus, modeled on Wahpeton, where she grew up, but located closer to the Chippewa reservation. The novel captures both the flat surfaces of life in small-town North Dakota and the wild incidents and strange passions that seem all the more startling, comic, and heartrending for their appearing in such a mundane environment.
As in Love Medicine, The Beet Queen features first-person and third-person-limited narration to present characters’ diverse points of view. In this novel, however, Erdrich focuses more closely on a few main characters, four later expanded to six, and devotes more time to their childhoods. The novel conveys a richly detailed perspective on how the dynamics of family and friendship affect characters over time.
Like Love Medicine, The Beet Queen begins with a vividly symbolic episode, shifts back in time, and then proceeds chronologically through a series of decades. The opening scene, “The Branch,” dramatizes two contrasting approaches to life that many characters will enact throughout the novel. On a cold spring day in 1932, two orphans, Mary and Karl Adare, arrive by freight train in Argus. As they seek the way to the butcher shop owned by their aunt and uncle, Mary “trudge[s] solidly forward,”...
(The entire section is 849 words.)
Pages 1-2 Summary
A long time before beets were planted or highways arrived in Argus, North Dakota, “there was the railroad.” The tracks crossed the Dakota-Minnesota border and went on into Minneapolis; everything that both makes and diminishes the town arrives and leaves on that track. On a cold spring morning in 1932, the train brings “both an addition and a subtraction.” Two passengers, with blue lips and numb feet, are stowed away in a freight car. When they jump, they are so cold that they stumble.
Karl Adare is a tall, pale fourteen-year-old; his eleven-year-old sister, Mary, is short and quite ordinary looking. Things are better in North Dakota “than in most places,” which is why they have come here to live with their sister’s mother, Fritzie. She and her husband run a butcher shop on the east end of town.
The Adare children begin walking east, warming up as they walk. They walk through town, searching for their aunt’s shop; Mary keeps walking but Karl stops, inexplicably and mysteriously drawn to a small, blossoming tree. Mary finally turns around and is frightened to see how far behind her he has fallen. Karl does not hear her shout, nor does he hear the shouts of the woman in the house who owns the tree. When Karl does not respond, the woman unties her large, “anxious” dog.
Karl tears a limb from the tree, leaving a scar which Mary will see on the tree next spring when she walks by this house. When the dog jumps at Karl, he strikes out with the branch and yells at his sister to run, which she does. Mary runs east, toward Aunt Fritzie, and Karl runs back toward the train.
(The entire section is 285 words.)
Pages 5-21 Summary
Mary Adare hears the train whistle and realizes Karl must have run back to the boxcar in which they arrived and is now riding away. If her father had not died in 1929, the Adares would probably still be living comfortably in an isolated house on the edge of Prairie Lake.
Karl, Mary, and their mother, Adelaide, live a solitary life; their only visitor is Mr. Ober, Adelaide’s lover, who comes to stay with her several nights a week. Although Karl hates Ober’s visits, Adelaide is thrilled when he comes. One day Karl reads in the newspaper that Ober has died in a grain-loading accident (the article includes a picture of Ober and his wife). Karl is glad, but Adelaide blurts that Ober was his father.
Everything is in Ober’s name except for the automobile, which Adelaide immediately sells. They take the train to the Cities, where Adelaide hopes to find work; however, she discovers she is pregnant and the Depression hits. In six months, they have no money.
Adelaide steals silver spoons from their kind landlady, trading some of them for warm coats and food. The landlady helps deliver the baby boy and discovers one of her spoons under the mattress; she gives the family four weeks to move. Adelaide is lethargic and barely cares for the baby; the landlady still insists that they move.
Adelaide owns many expensive pieces of jewelry (from Ober), but she refuses to sell them. At an Orphan’s Picnic, The Great Omar, an aeronaut, allows someone to ride with him for a few dollars. Adelaide pushes her way to the airplane. Before her children can react, Adelaide is gone. Hours pass and she does not return. The baby screams and people try to help; finally a grieving father grabs the boy and promises to bring him back. He does not return either.
Mary takes her mother’s blue velvet jewelry box and the children spend the next night traveling in a boxcar. They are unaware that there is nothing valuable in the box because Adelaide pawned everything.
When the train stops at Argus, the children are freezing and Mary no longer loves her mother. She walks through town ahead of Karl and can see Kozka’s Meats before the dog attacks Karl and he runs.
Uncle Pete, Aunt Fritzie, and their daughter, Sita, assume Mary ran away until she explains the incident with Omar. Mary sleeps in the room where she will sleep every night for the rest of her life.
Twelve-year-old Sita is...
(The entire section is 504 words.)
Pages 22-26 Summary
The boxcar into which Karl jumps is soon separated from the train and left on the tracks. By the end of the day, Karl is hungry, cold, thirsty, and ready to die. When a man jumps inside, Karl is glad for an excuse to live. The man is wearing an old army uniform; he sits near Karl and smokes a cigarette before Karl finally makes his presence known.
The man, Giles Saint Ambrose, assumes Karl is a girl masquerading as a boy and calls him Karla. When Karl sits next to Ambrose, as requested, he sees the man is not old, just brown and leathery from the sun and wind. Karl explains he lived in Prairie Lake but his family lost everything. Ambrose sees that Karl is hungry and offers him a ham sandwich, which the boy eats with “swift ferocity.”
Ambrose jokingly says he will trade the sandwich for the stick with which Karl fought off the dog in Argus. The memory overwhelms Karl, and to his shame, he begins to cry. He leans against Ambrose and the man comforts him. Karl cries “until the fury of his grief [is] exhausted.”
Karl wakes at dusk, fearful that Ambrose has left him, and Ambrose reassures the boy. In the dark, Karl imagines the two of them living a life of adventure together and reaches for Ambrose. Karl is certain he loves Ambrose and they have a sexual encounter; afterward, Ambrose unintentionally demeans Karl’s feelings by saying “it happens” before falling into a sound sleep.
Karl is angry, even stabs the hay menacingly close to Ambrose, feeling as if his heart has been “ripped open.” His loss and grief now swallow him, but he refuses consolation. He picks up his branch and leaps out the door of the moving boxcar.
(The entire section is 300 words.)
Pages 27-34 Summary
Sita remembers her cousin Mary arriving with nothing but a box of worthless keepsakes. Sita’s father picks the girl up and carries her. Sita is too old to be carried any more. While Mary tells Sita’s parents how she came to be here, Sita is sent to clean the counters in the butcher shop, so she never knows what lies her cousin tells them.
When Mary is given Sita’s bed, she objects and says Mary can sleep on the trundle. Her mother unsympathetically says Sita can just as easily sleep there. Sita feels “crammed in the trundle,” which is too short for her; it is not surprising that Sita does not feel particularly welcoming to Mary in the morning.
This morning, Mary discovers her blue velvet box is worthless. Sita feels sorry for her, so she allows her mother and Mary to scour her closet and dresser to find clothes for Mary. Not only does Sita have to watch Mary try on some of her favorite clothes, but she also has to empty two dresser drawers for her. After a while, Sita is afraid she will have nothing left to wear and tells her mother “this has really gone far enough,” but her plain-speaking mother tells her that is “crap.”
Sita believes Mary ran away because she did not “appreciate Adelaide’s style.” Sita adores Adelaide and how she uses her good looks to her best advantage; she always loved Adelaide’s visits, but her mother and Mary have never understood true style like Sita and Adelaide do. Neither of Sita’s parents approves of Adelaide, the spoiled youngest child.
Some say Sita is spoiled, but she has to work at the butcher shop. Sita’s least favorite day is Wednesday because it is the day the chickens are killed. Sita’s job is to pluck out and clean the gizzards.
Her father gives her almost anything she wants; the only thing he has ever denied her is his lucky cow’s diamond (the lens of a cow’s eye). Two days after Mary Adare arrives, her father gives it to Mary, probably out of pity. Mary now wears it, on a gold chain, around her neck.
Any possibility for friendship is over when Mary steals Sita’s best friend, Celestine James. Celestine is part Indian and lives outside of town, a statuesque girl with whom Sita does things Sita’s parents would never allow. Sita takes Mary with her to Celestine’s one day and the two girls have an instant connection; they share a “sort of fierceness” that comes from having no parents. Even worse,...
(The entire section is 512 words.)
Pages 35-40 Summary
Sita thought no one could see her dancing topless in the cemetery, but from an upstairs window Mary sees and wonders how long her cousin is going to continue her ridiculous behavior. Mary hears Celestine reenter the house and begin banging around in the kitchen and goes down to join her. Celestine meticulously removes cookies from the baking sheet, and Mary can tell that Celestine knows Mary observed the events in the cemetery from an upstairs window.
Suddenly the sky grows dark as a storm approaches, so the two girls decide to get Sita from the cemetery. Sita meets them along the way, passes them without speaking, gets on her bike, and rides home without uttering a word. Now Mary has to walk home, a distance of more than a mile, in the rain. After Aunt Fritzie rubs Mary dry with a towel, she tells Sita to apologize for leaving Mary stranded in the rain. She has to call Sita twice before she comes.
On the first day of school, Sita is wearing a new dress and Mary is wearing one of Sita’s old dresses; Mary is untroubled about wearing her cousin’s hand-me-downs, mostly because it bothers Sita so much. It does not bother Mary to be alone, but suddenly she is “an object of fascination” for everyone at school.
Everyone wants to be Mary’s friend, but Mary only wants one friend: Celestine. Celestine is strong and tall, bigger than the eighth-grade boys and almost as tall the tallest nun who teach them. Mary is seated ahead of Sita alphabetically, but Sita soon finds ways to ingratiate herself and move to the front of the class where she can get the attention she so desires. Sita is relieved that Mary soon becomes “old hat” and she again becomes the center of attraction for the older boys.
Halfway through the school year, Mary regains her classmates’ attention through an unplanned miracle which happens one frozen late-winter day. Ice covers the ground and the nuns warn the children that sliding on it is dangerous and therefore forbidden. The children all ignore the injunction and prepare to slide down a big hill outside the school. Mary is the first and only slider.
She flies down the slope, head first, with astonishing speed and lands hard with her face on the ice. She is bleeding, but hardly anyone pays attention to her. They are all too busy staring at the crack in the ice left by her face. Mary looks, too, and is stunned to see her brother Karl’s image so clearly in the...
(The entire section is 504 words.)
Pages 41-44 Summary
Celestine watches from behind as Mary slides face first down the icy slope. Everything happens so quickly as Mary hits the ice and rolls twice; her face bloodies and one of the nuns runs to help her immediately. Celestine hears a scream and sees Sita trying to draw attention to herself by staggering dizzily at the sight of her cousin’s blood and crying out feebly (but piercingly) for help. Celestine knows Sita is much stronger even than she is, so Celestine ignores Sita.
Celestine follows Mary and the nun but is shooed away at the infirmary door. Sister Hugo’s voice is shaking as she tells Celestine to hurry to the convent and get one of the nuns with a camera because “it may not last.” Celestine is confused but does as she is told. By the time she reaches the convent, Celestine realizes Mary’s fall has caused a miracle and shouts it loudly to the sisters.
The schoolyard is in chaos and later the photograph (taken by Sister Leopolda) of the face in the ice will be referred to in textbooks as The Manifestation At Argus. Mary’s story will be written about as a miracle, but there will be no mention of Sister Leopolda who scourges herself bloody near the site one night.
Amid the confusion, Celestine sneaks back into the school and finds Mary, her face already turning purple with bruises. She tells Celestine that the image is a miracle, but it is Karl’s image. She is annoyed that her brother will not leave her alone. Celestine leaves the infirmary and goes to look at the face. Although she kneels for a long time trying to see Christ’s face, she does not see it. She looks again in the morning; her brother Russell sees it, but she still does not.
(The entire section is 307 words.)
Pages 45-47 Summary
In a small house in Minneapolis, a young woman nervously scans the newspaper advertisements; her husband, Martin, sits across the room from her, their son in his arms. She explains to Martin that she is perusing the ads because kidnapping is a crime. Martin just looks down at the contented, sleeping baby. Catherine Miller finally puts the paper down and also watches her son. She named him Jude after the patron saint of lost causes, and remembers the night “their other son, the one who had only lived three days, was buried.”
Catherine tries not think about that time, but tonight she remembers how still the world had been then and how her mind was frozen with loss. Despite the numbness, she could not sleep and refused anything to help her dull the pain or help her sleep. On that night, Martin was gone and she suddenly felt she needed something to ease her pain. Standing in her nightgown, she drank several large tumblers of bootleg whiskey; she slept dully and heavily.
In her exhaustion, she did hear the child’s cries but assumed it was some kind of “terrible hallucination” and retreated from the sound. She vaguely felt Martin unwrapping her breasts and tried to brush him away; soon Martin put the baby to her breast and she fed him both from her breast and her heart.
Now Martin sees the joy on Catherine’s face. Catherine reads the advertisement, placed by the Kozka family of Argus, offering a reward for any information regarding a one month old baby boy or his erratically behaving mother. Catherine places the newspaper page in a drawer, along with a tiny blue cap, a fabric-scrap blanket, and the odd, green plaid gown her second son had been wearing the night he came to save her.
(The entire section is 302 words.)
Pages 48-55 Summary
When he jumps from the boxcar, Karl Adare lands in a patch of tall, dead grass. His legs hurt and he is cold. Karl is in great pain and even slight movement stings, so he just lies still. He thought perhaps Ambrose would return for him after he woke up in the boxcar but had discovered he was alone. Still, Karl assumes “since [he] hadn’t died [he] certainly would be saved.”
Karl’s salvation is a dark-skinned, scavenging, homeless lady who pours some whiskey down his throat. She tries to examine his feet, but Karl cannot bear the pain and twists away from her probing hands. The woman leaves and comes back for him later, carrying him to her fire.
Later, he learns that the woman, Fleur Pillager, is able to talk but does not; however, she often sings and talks to herself. That night, she tends to his feet while he is passed out from the pain. She kneads and molds his ankles into the correct shape before making plaster casts shaped from the apple tree branch Karl got in Argus. Though he is drunk, he does not sleep well that night.
They are camped in isolation near the railroad tracks. Fleur is a young Indian woman, part of the wandering Pillager tribe, who peddles her second-hand wares to make her living. Karl wants to tell her everything, but he has pneumonia. Fleur seals the boy into a “sweltering cone” where he spends the night in sweaty delirium. His fever breaks during the night and Fleur continues to treat him with her crude but effective methods.
When Karl is well, the pair moves on, travelling slowly along the railroad tracks. Karl does not know where they are going and he does not care. They stop in people’s yards so Fleur can do business; Karl assumes he looks like some kind of foolish prisoner but again does not care. Karl thinks often about his mother. His image of her changes from sympathetic to cruel to victimized: a woman who was stolen from him by an aeronaut in a leather helmet. She had just wanted an adventure, but Omar fell in love with her and has kept her from her family despite her protests. Karl imagines hunting down Omar and rescuing Adelaide.
When they finally arrive at Fleur’s reservation, everything changes. She takes Karl in her arms and carries him to the nuns. The sisters recoil from his foul odor and ponder what to do with him; Fleur places him gently on the floor and walks away. Karl realizes the things he has done on his own—hopping the train...
(The entire section is 512 words.)
Pages 56-61 Summary
Aunt Fritzie invites Mary into her office one day. The cramped and busy space is Mary’s favorite place. She has already decided she wants to learn how to “keep books like Aunt Fritzie,” as she finds comfort in the warm room and the soothing sounds of the keys.
Aunt Fritzie hands Mary a postcard from Adelaide; she is living in Florida but thinks about her children every day. Mary knows her aunt is an ally, since Adelaide abandoned them both. Mary does not know what she will do, but Fritzie wants to horsewhip Adelaide. Mary is free to write to her mother, but Fritzie “washed her hands of Adelaide” when Mary walked into her house. All she asks is that Mary not return to her mother, and tacitly Mary knows that will never happen. She tells her aunt that she has been a better mother to her than Adelaide ever was.
Aunt Fritzie is a smoker and knows she should quit; she promises to do so after the pack she is smoking. Mary takes the postcard with her and for several weeks she imagines writing long, hate-filled letters to her mother. One day she unthinkingly buys a postcard entitled “Aerial View of Argus, North Dakota” and sends it to Adelaide with this message: “All three of your children starved dead.”
The postcard, after being forwarded through two address changes, is delivered to Omar just after the accident. He would have forgotten about it, but he is in the hospital watching Adelaide and has nothing else to distract him. His hands are burned, his ribs are bound, and his leg is shattered. He watches Adelaide in silence. He rarely knew what to say to her when she was alive; now he is “even less sure of himself.”
During the accident, when sparks began to jump from the controls, he screamed; but Adelaide sat silently as he tried to stop their descent. Miraculously, Omar was able to avoid a “total crack-up” when he landed at the county fair. He does not know how badly Adelaide is hurt or whether she will ever wake up or be in her right mind if she does. (She will be fine, with only a small scar at the nape of her neck, while he will live with pain and a limp.)
As he keeps watch, he hears Adelaide murmuring she needs to send Mary a sewing machine so she will always have a marketable skill. Adelaide is good with a budget and has saved enough money to buy Mary a Singer. She rarely spoke about her life before him, and Omar is proud that a woman like her (obviously well off,...
(The entire section is 506 words.)
Pages 65-79 Summary
Mary Adare is no longer remarkable or miraculous; she becomes an “ordinary girl again, and maybe something worse than that.” Mary likes the butcher shop and bluntly speaks her mind; she is “pigheaded, bitter, moody, and [has] fits of unreasonable anger.” Her experiences have given her a unique perspective, different from anyone around her.
Though she has lived closely with Sita and knows her better than Celestine, Mary does not really understand Sita. Celestine quit school and works for the telephone company. She is “handsome like a man,” smokes like Fritzie, and exudes confidence. Mary wishes she were tall like Celestine, but at eighteen she has stopped growing and will always be short.
The butcher shop is Mary’s “perfect home.” Sometimes Mary waits on customers, but mostly she and Fritzie work in the back room. On the day everything changes, Mary senses trouble and finds Fritzie on her knees, struggling for breath. While Fritzie survives the ordeal, she is forever changed. She stops smoking and after a few months she is healthier than she ever has been. Her attitude also has softened and she tries to make up for her earlier harshness and neglect toward her girls.
Even now, Mary knows her life will be one of solitude, though not by choice. The first person she shows interest in is Celestine’s half-brother Russell Kashpaw, who has come home from war scarred and more taciturn than usual. Mary is captivated by him, but he is even more “socially backward” than she is. He makes it clear to Mary that if he were going to choose whom to love, it would be Sita, not her. Sita catches his glance and makes it clear to him that she is “off limits to his type.”
Undeterred, Mary wants to kill Sita rather than Kashpaw. Sita is mesmerized by fortune telling, so Mary gets a deck of cards and pronounces that Sita will be riding in a black Buick when she dies. Kashpaw asks for a prediction and Mary tells him he will owe one woman a lot of money one day. He assures Mary he will never marry that woman, and Mary is cured of her fascination with him.
Fritzie and her husband need to move to a drier, warmer climate for her lungs. None of them discuss the shop until Mary asks about it one day. Mary will take over the shop and Sita will move to Fargo where she hopes to model clothes and meet a rich husband.
On Sita’s last night at home, the girls are awakened by the...
(The entire section is 510 words.)
Pages 80-82 Summary
Karl walks quickly into the Orphans’ Picnic and stops, “waiting to be seen.” Everyone he expects to see, fathers and sisters from seminary, is there. They do not recognize him immediately, so Karl sits in plain view and waits.
His is slick, polished, and has “made a lot of easy sales to women.” He has a lot of money and has “turned out worse than their wildest dreams.” A young, red-headed seminarian good-naturedly tries to coax Karl to come to his fishing booth, but Karl dismisses him at first. When he looks closer, the young man’s unruly hair looks just like Adelaide’s; when he looks closer still, the young man’s features are also exactly like Adelaide’s.
Karl sits in the place where his life changed forever and realizes this young man might be his brother. He goes to the booth and chats with the redhead who introduces himself as Jude Miller. When Karl wins, he tells Jude the prize is “a piece of crap.” He hates his brother as fervently now as he did when the boy was an infant and tells Jude he is “a piece of crap, too.”
Jude is distraught and quickly tries to attract others to his booth. When no one comes, Jude panics and tries to get his superiors’ attention, but no one pays attention to him. Seeing this weakness, Karl leans into the young man’s face and, with great certainty, asks Jude who he is. Beet red and nearly in tears, Jude whispers that he is “crap.”
Karl derisively says Jude is just like his mother and asks who he thinks he is. Without hesitation, Jude says Karl is the devil. Karl laughs again and says that is what Father Mullen said. He asks Jude to tell Mullen that Karl Adare “came back to say hello.”
(The entire section is 307 words.)
Pages 83-96 Summary
Sita lives in an apartment in Fargo on Broadway and is doing well, despite being in several unfulfilling relationships. Her current beau is Jimmy, though he is not her social equal. Sita is ten years older than many of the other girls she models with, so she goes to great lengths to maintain her looks and charm. Though she has experienced moderate success, she is thirty years old and knows “something more should have happened.” Sita missed her chance at Hollywood, so now she must find “the ideal husband.” If something more had happened in her life, the letter might not have mattered.
The letter, addressed to Sita’s parents, was forwarded to her by Mary. It is from Catherine Miller, confessing that she and her husband stole and raised the baby she read about in Fritzie’s advertisement. Miller’s husband died six years ago and Jude is going to be ordained soon; he does not know he was adopted, and this is the time to tell him if he is to be told at all.
When Sita finally makes sense of the letter, she decides to go to Minneapolis and attend Jude’s ordination. She intends to choose a suitable moment to dramatically reveal herself to Mary’s youngest brother. She can hardly sleep in her excitement.
Minneapolis is a nice town, but Sita is mortified to discover that she (and all of Fargo) is terribly behind the fashion trends. The cathedral is “lovely in the snow” and the ceremony is formal and beautiful. She realizes her revelation can be both dramatic and dangerous: she has the power to change Jude Miller’s life.
The bishop begins listing all the reasons a man would not be allowed to receive the Orders, but the only one Sita hears is “illegitimate.” Although she tries to determine which of the young men is Mary’s brother, Sita is unable to do so and soon the ceremony is over. She looks inside her aunt’s blue velvet box (which she stole from Mary and took with her when she moved to Fargo). In the box she finds a pawn ticket for a jeweled necklace and ring.
She has no fine jewelry and goes to the pawn shop in an attempt to reclaim the pieces. Though the transaction happened years ago, the owner’s son finds the necklace in a “blackened tangle of delicate links.” Sita does not even want to touch the filthy thing and has the man put it in the box.
Back in Fargo, a jeweler cleans the necklace. Sita is stunned at its beauty and immediately wears it....
(The entire section is 506 words.)
Pages 97-100 Summary
At Sita’s wedding, the groom’s drunk brother and cousins decide to kidnap the bride and make her husband, Jimmy Bohl, find her. They are giddy with drunken laughter at the thought of Jimmy hollering for Sita; they are even more amused when they imagine him getting into his Lincoln (decorated with toilet paper and shaving cream), driving off to find her, and immediately smelling the Limburger cheese (which they strategically placed) coming through the heat vents.
Jimmy is pudgy and wears a pompadour and goatee; he is an accomplished ballroom dancer, but Sita is miserable dancing as she is being “flung back and forth across the floor.” The drunken gang wonders if Sita’s parents will be angry when they kidnap their daughter, but Fritzie and Pete seem content.
Sita is dressed in grand finery, but her smile is bleak and she has a look of nervous exhaustion. The kidnappers are disgruntled because Sita kept stringing Jimmy along in hopes of finding someone better.
Soon Sita is in a car, squished in the middle of the backseat, desperate to escape. They deposit her on a nearly deserted spot on reservation land. It is bitterly cold, and even the jacket one of them leaves for her is virtually useless.
Sita is so sick, furious, and frightened that she can barely speak. As the taillights fade into the distance, a gust of wind carries Sita’s voluminous dress up over her head just as she enters a small reservation bar. Sita is an astonishing sight to the bar patrons until, layer by layer, she manages to smooth her dress down until her face emerges. One woman thinks she is a queen, but another grabs Russell Kashpaw’s arm and says it is a bride. Sita’s face is horribly distorted in her rage.
(The entire section is 303 words.)
Pages 101-107 Summary
Karl Adare is a salesman who dramatically sells the miraculous Air Spreader, a device that blows seeds gently onto the ground so the soil is not disturbed and surface moisture is not lost. Today, at the Crop and Livestock Convention in Minneapolis, a slim blond man is quite interested in Karl’s product.
The man introduces himself as Wallace Pfef. He says he is from Argus and that he is always interested in innovation; he quizzes Karl with many questions. As Karl tells Pfef all about this miraculous machine, Karl wonders why he keeps meeting people from, and hearing about, Argus, a “two-bit town” in his mind. When the town appears in the newspapers, Karl always wonders if he will read his sister’s name but knows it would not matter if he did. He would not consider calling, writing a letter, or visiting because it has been too long; however, he feels a kind of fascination and curiosity about Argus which prompts him to invite Pfef for a drink.
The two men are silent for a time. When Pfef asks Karl if he is from Minneapolis, Karl bitterly explains he spent time at Saint Jerome’s, “a Catholic home for bastards.” Pfef expresses sympathy but Karl quickly dismisses it then surprises himself by revealing to this stranger that he has a sister living in Argus. Realizing he has “gone too far” and that Pfef might know Mary, Karl claims not to know who she is.
Pfef is not convinced and suddenly everything changes between them. Karl invites Pfef to join him for dinner in his hotel room. Pfef is surprised, but they have each had three drinks and are “feeling loose.” Karl knows he is a much stronger and fitter man than Pfef.
In the hotel room, Pfef is nervous and Karl is hungry and rather bored with Pfef’s nervousness. After they order, Karl pours Pfef a drink before drinking straight from the bottle in his suitcase. Downstairs Pfef had been the bold one, but now Karl leads and the men have a sexual encounter.
As they eat, Pfef somehow seems relieved and admits he has never done this before; Karl assumes he is married and asks about his wife. Pfef says he was engaged once. Karl claims he has known and enjoyed many women, but the truth is that he has “always found their touch unbearable, a source of nameless panic.”
Pfef offers to try to find Karl’s sister, and Karl is suddenly afraid that this man might really want to get to know him, an “awful possibility.”...
(The entire section is 513 words.)
Pages 108-110 Summary
Wallace Pfef drives from Minneapolis back to Argus. He turns off the highway onto a “dirt road known for harboring high school sweethearts.” Tonight the road is deserted and he soon stops the car and listens to nature’s night sounds outside his business. He is not ready to go back to his empty house, which is only half-built, but he also does not want to think too much about what happened between him and Karl in Minneapolis, either.
He tries to nap a bit and turn his thoughts elsewhere, but he is not particularly successful. Pfef thinks about one of his jobs, managing the swimming pool in town. It was a WPA project and much too “large and fancy” for a town like Argus. The pool is in terrible condition and is a constant problem for Pfef. Now he thinks about First National Bank, where he is a board member, but his mind quickly turns from that, too. All he can think about is Karl lying on the crisp hospital sheets.
Suddenly a bright light startles him and Officer Ron Lovchik leans into the car window. Pfef thinks quickly and shows his friend some of the pamphlets he gathered at the convention and rambles about the potential of sugar beets to change the economic prospects in Argus. A beet refinery would ensure Lovchik a new squad car and new windows for the jail; the town could build two swimming pools. Pfef begins to get carried away by his own ramblings and soon the idea settles into his brain. Lovchick good-naturedly dismisses Pfef’s ideas, but as he drives away, Pfef can almost see the smokestacks of the Argus beet refinery.
(The entire section is 281 words.)
Pages 111-140 Summary
It is 1953. Mary Adare is thinking about robots, but she is concerned that beet sugar, the current craze in Argus, is unhealthy. Russell Kashpaw was wounded in Korea but is finally home, though he drinks too much and is depressed. Sita is frustrated that her husband’s restaurant, The Poopdeck, serves the kind of food people in Argus like; Sita wants to create a four-star restaurant and the couple fights constantly. Sita “remains toothpick thin and sour,” spending so much time on her appearance that she “ends up looking stuffed and preserved.”
Over the past few years, Mary has grown “more unshakable in deed and word.” She avidly practices organic gardening. Wallace Pfef visits the butcher shop and gives Mary an engraved invitation to Chez Sita’s grand opening. Jimmy and Sita have divorced. Sita got the restaurant and the house while Jimmy took everything else. She is now reopening The Poopdeck as a fine-dining restaurant. Mary discards the invitation but Celestine retrieves it and says she will attend.
Mary changes her mind and goes to the opening with Celestine and Russell. A distraught Sita comes to their table and demands that they follow her to the kitchen where she announces that her chef and staff are all suffering from food poisoning. Mary takes charge and prepares the food she knows; the guests are entirely satisfied but Sita barely manages a grudging thank-you. Now the health inspector regularly visits the always-empty Chez Sita, but Sita is unperturbed and has even found a new beau.
Karl Adare walks into the butcher shop when Celestine is alone one night; he thinks it is Mary and announces that she is “not pretty…but pretty isn’t everything.” He introduces himself as Mary’s brother and Celestine is shocked. They have an immediate and burning attraction; though both are inexperienced, their coupling is quick but intense. In the following awkwardness, Karl sells Celestine a fancy knife before he disappears.
Two weeks later Karl accidentally arrives at Celestine’s door as a salesman and is shocked to see her. Celestine has used the two weeks to study, and this time their lovemaking is almost violent in its passion. Karl stays, doing nothing every day as Celestine works at the butcher shop and then taking her to bed immediately when she returns. Russell does not like “what’s going on here” and leaves. Celestine is content and for two months nothing changes....
(The entire section is 502 words.)
Pages 141-143 Summary
Mary hangs up the telephone after Celestine tells her that Karl is gone (which is not a surprise to Mary) and that she is pregnant (which is a huge surprise to Mary). She grabs a crowbar and opens the crate which arrived for her a month ago. She sees that it is a heavy black sewing machine and contemplates it for some time before going back to the telephone and calling Sita.
Neither woman is happy to speak with the other, but Mary tells Sita that her aunt (Adelaide, Mary’s mother) has sent her a sewing machine. Sita remembers how much Adelaide liked to rework out-of-style garments into fashionable clothing and says she will send Louis to pick up the machine.
Mary has always believed she has some psychic abilities, and she feels that tonight is “ripe with significance” and “full of hidden signs.” Neither her tarot cards nor her Ouija board appeal to her, for neither of them can replicate the glorious day when she smashed her face into the ice and saw her brother’s face as if in a “magic mirror.” Now she stands in the dark and wills a sign to appear.
After a moment, Mary walks outside and thinks about Karl. She can see the “delicate greed” on his face, the same visage he had as he tore the branch with its white blooms from the tree so many years ago. Then she sees Celestine, “her arms spread and grasping,” before Mary continues walking. She finally lies in the damp grass, as if in a trance, and dreams about Celestine’s daughter, a big girl with “blazing dark red curls.” Before she finally sleeps, Mary sees her own stubbornness in the child’s eyes.
(The entire section is 290 words.)
Pages 144-153 Summary
A few weeks after the food-poisoning incident at her restaurant, Sita married the former health inspector, Louis. They have lived together comfortably for the past two months in the grand house Sita’s ex-husband built. One morning, she discovers her cousin Karl Adare sleeping in her wet shrubbery and clutching a Bible.
Karl looks shabby and “well-trampled by the adventures of life.” Despite that, Sita is interested and chooses to see his appearance in her yard as a compliment. She invites him to join her and Louis for lunch, though she fears he may only be hoping she will be an easy sale. She introduces Karl to her husband and then grows coy, hoping Karl thinks she is still pretty but knowing she is “acting foolish as a peacock.”
Sita discovers the Bible in Karl’s hand belongs to Celestine and she wonders how he got it and why he was clutching it in her garden. The two men are seated outside at the small wrought-iron table and chairs, and they both begin eating their sandwiches before she sits down. Sita looks at Karl and is mesmerized by the way he eats his sandwich; it seems quite sinister to her.
Sita sees Karl’s chair sinking into the wet ground and imagines him gradually sinking lower. Suddenly she understands everything clearly: Karl stole Celestine’s Bible from her and he is here to steal her valuables, as well. It seems clear to her that when he asked to use the bathroom, Karl was actually rifling through her belongings looking for her jewelry.
Suddenly Sita leaves the table and goes inside; certain now of Karl’s guilt, she calls the authorities. When she returns to the table, she is surprised to see that “her cousin has sunk noticeably further” and is now at chest level with the table. Sheriff Pausch arrives and Karl’s eyes widen in surprise. Sita explains that Karl stole Celestine’s New Testament and then stole from her jewelry box, stuffing her loot in his pockets.
The embarrassed sheriff pats down the suddenly pale Karl before explaining that there must be some kind of mistake. In the ensuing tension, each man looks at Sita and she looks at each of them. When the sheriff speaks again, Sita knows she has “done something very wrong” and, even worse, “something even more wrong” is going to happen. She is having a psychotic episode.
Louis wants Sita to sit down, but she cannot take her eyes off Karl, whose chair has continued to sink....
(The entire section is 506 words.)
Pages 154-158 Summary
Russell Kashpaw has built a summer fishing shack which he can move and use for ice fishing in the winter. He enjoys not having a “regular job” so he is free to go fishing and get drunk whenever he wishes, though he is not “much of a drinker.” He keeps a lock on the shack now, since he knows Celestine has discovered it; he knows she has been here because she tidies everything, as is her habit when she is restless. Everything she does is an improvement, but Kashpaw knows Celestine wants to visit and he wants to avoid her a little longer.
Though the door is still locked, he can see her footprints in the snow outside the shack, where she has obviously spent some time waiting for him. Inside, he immediately scoops out the slush from the hole he cut in the ice two days ago before dropping a line through the hole. He sits and watches his red-and-white bobber as his thoughts drift to many things. Whenever his thoughts turn to Celestine, he immediately pushes them away.
He has not seen or spoken to his sister since the day he learned she was pregnant. In July he heard that Karl, Celestine’s boyfriend, was gone, so he went to the house late one night and intended to surprise Celestine by making her breakfast the next morning. Both of them were surprised by the other’s presence, and Kashpaw could see the clear outline of his sister’s pregnant belly. He left, telling her it was her funeral, and has not spoken to her since then. Even though Mary has assured him that Karl is gone for good, Kashpaw has not wanted to go back to see Celestine.
Kashpaw catches a fish, a small northern pike that is too small to keep. He releases the fish back into the water and resets his line before settling back into his chair. The shack is warmer now, and this time when he thinks about Celestine he allows the thoughts to remain. He can see her image in his mind when he feels the first constrictions in his chest and when the constrictions turn to a “slow tingling.” He feels no pain for a time, but it soon coils and uncoils inside him “like a big steel spring” before he collapses into darkness.
At about five o’clock that evening, Celestine arrives at the shack and almost turns around when she sees no light inside; however, she notices the padlock is open and walks inside to find her brother slumped in his lawn chair. When she notices his line has been snapped, Celestine knows something is wrong with him and she...
(The entire section is 485 words.)
Pages 159-174 Summary
Wallace Pfef has never been married, but he has a photograph and other items commemorating a woman the town refers to as his “poor dead sweetheart.” Pfef found the photograph and the memorabilia in a box he bought for five dollars at an auction. Because of his apparent undying allegiance to a non-existent dead girlfriend, Pfef has “never had to marry.”
Pfef is brings “beets to the valley,” an unfailing crop which produces refined white sugar, despite considerable resistance. He lives far outside of town in a fine house which he built; his nearest neighbors are Celestine and her daughter. Two things happened at a 1952 convention in Minneapolis: he discovered beets and he discovered he “was queer.”
Karl Adare was the best salesman at the convention, and everything was fine between the two men until Karl landed on his back while jumping wildly on the bed. Karl clearly disdained Pfef’s sympathy, and eventually Pfef returned to Argus, assuming he would never see Karl again. For his own protection, has managed to forget about Karl most of the time. Karl is “good at hiding facts for [his] own self-protection.” After his encounter with Karl, Pfef wanted to tell Mary about her brother to “disrupt her smugness,” but Pfef knows Mary Adare’s reputation for being ruthless, able to work on people’s “nerves like a string in a blanket.” In fact, Mary is the cause of Sita’s mental unraveling.
One day Karl calls and says he is coming through Argus. Pfef spends hours cleaning his house but finally gives up waiting when Karl does not come when he promised. Eventually he arrives and Pfef finally feels as if his life makes sense. He wishes for things to last forever, but two weeks later Karl leaves without note or warning. What disturbs Pfef most is where Karl went.
One night Pfef follows a stray dog out of concern and discovers Karl is in a relationship with Celestine. Pfef makes sure Karl sees him, and Karl is shocked when Pfef appears. Months later, everyone in town speculates about who the father of Celestine’s baby might be, but Pfef knows.
During a January blizzard, Celestine goes into labor and begins walking to the hospital. Luckily Pfef heeds the stray dog’s whining and sees her, or in the morning he would have found her and her baby frozen in his yard. Celestine is about to give birth, and she gives Pfef terse instructions between her contractions. Pfef and...
(The entire section is 499 words.)
Pages 175-176 Summary
During Dot’s first summer, Celestine brings her daughter to work with her every day. The little girl, placed in the padded bottom of an old shopping cart, either sleeps or sucks on her fingers as she watches her mother. Sometimes Celestine directly meets her daughter’s eyes, stunned by the intensity of Dot’s gaze. She picks her up, almost ready for the infant to begin speaking to her. Once Dot makes her body rigid, making it clear she does not want to be held, Celestine puts her back down.
No matter how exhausted Celestine is, she feels a “nerve of excitement running through each hour.” Everything which is common seems strange, almost as if she is experiencing them in a dream. It is Dot who has caused this transformation in Celestine’s world.
This little girl has become Celestine’s life, and her love for Dot hangs “around her in clear, blowing sheets.” Dot finally sleeps through the night and past her normal feeding time. While the sleepy child nurses, Celestine imagines a tiny white spider making a nest on her daughter’s head. It is nearly transparent and moves quickly, throwing its invisible filaments and then catching them again as it weaves.
Celestine watches the complicated web being formed, a “complicated house” which Celestine cannot bear to destroy.
(The entire section is 221 words.)
Pages 179-204 Summary
In the first three years of Dot’s life, the winters are so frigid that many things do not survive. Finally, when Dot is five, the weather turns mild and Mary softens her heart toward the girl. Mary has always hated the name Celestine chose (Wallacette) and Celestine has always stubbornly rejected any help from Mary. Mary is convinced she understands things about Dot which Celestine cannot accept.
Mary knows that Dot was “never meant to be a baby.” The child is impatient with the dependence of being an infant and moves recklessly toward independence and danger as soon as she is able. Trouble seems to avoid her loud little voice, and the first word Dot speaks clearly is “more.” She is spoiled and greedy, only grudgingly adding “please” to her demands. Mary sees hints of others in the child, but Dot positively resembles Mary the most, both physically and in temperament. Mary completely indulges her niece.
When she starts school, Dot is big (like Celestine was and is), strong, and spoiled. Her classmates immediately recognize that they are doves and she is a hawk; for seven years, until high school, she will violently pursue their affection.
One day Dot is in trouble at school and with Celestine, and Mary takes pity on her. Mary should have known Dot would lie to her to get more sympathy, but she forgets and believes the story that Dot’s teacher has a “naughty box” in which children are stuffed when they misbehave. Mary overreacts and stuffs the poor teacher in the red toy box in the back of her classroom, even though the teacher insists the naughty box is actually just a spot on the blackboard.
Officer Lovchik arrives at the butcher shop the next day, and Mary is forced to admit she believed Dot’s lie about the teacher and then overreacted. Celestine does not speak to Mary for most of the summer.
Karl periodically sends Dot random items and postcards from his travels; the most recent is an electric wheelchair he won as a door prize at a convention. Dot wants it for a toy, but Celestine insists they give the chair to Russell Kashpaw. Kashpaw was paralyzed by his stroke six years ago and lives on the reservation with his half-brother Eli. Mary drives them and the wheelchair to Eli’s house.
Celestine’s imposing Aunt Fleur is there and quite protective of Russell, who does not respond to or acknowledge them in any way. While Celestine and Mary have coffee...
(The entire section is 482 words.)
Pages 205-212 Summary
Louis and Sita are standing near ward A, a building set apart from the state mental hospital. Louis says the windows of the building are regular glass and Sita will be able to sit outside on warm days, just as she would on her porch at home. Sita refuses to look either at the windows or her husband.
Louis and Sita’s psychiatrist have both explained that ward A is for patients who might eventually return to society and lead a “normal life.” Four months ago, Sita pretended to lose her voice and enjoyed all the attention she got everyone having to lean in close to read her lips. She enjoyed the attention so much that she actually did lose her voice; if she spends some time here, her psychiatrist believes she might be cured.
The psychiatrist scolded Louis for enabling her after looking through the dozens of black books Louis “kept over the years in an attempt to cure her episodes.” He recorded Sita’s dreams, her conversations with various objects, and the fantasies she shared with him. But Sita feels violated by Louis showing the doctor these private records.
Finally she allows Louis to lead her into ward A and a nurse takes them to the room she will temporarily share with Mrs. Waldvogel. The hallways are all green and remind Sita of an aquarium; the walls of her room are mustard yellow, and she knows she cannot sleep here. She tries to tell Louis she hates the color and sleeping with a roommate will remind her of so many years of sleeping in the same room as Mary. She used to resent Mary’s ability to sleep while she struggled with her own ability to do so. Louis consults with the nurse and knows nothing of Sita’s feelings.
The nurse is unwilling to read her lips, and Sita considers escaping. The nurse returns with Waldvogel, a grandmotherly old woman. When they are alone, Waldvogel shows Sita photographs of her family and Sita thinks it might become pleasant to live here—until the old woman calmly says she ate her last roommate.
The nurse has orders not to read Sita’s notes (this one says she refuses to sleep in a room with someone who believes she is a cannibal), so Sita sits in the lounge and watches television with other patients. The patients look normal, though they do seem rather ungroomed. She is horrified at what she might look like if she stays here too long.
She lies on her bed and does some imaginary gardening before Waldvogel gets ready for...
(The entire section is 500 words.)
Pages 213-229 Summary
The butcher shop, which has not been as profitable since the “boom with the sugar beet began,” is damaged in a fire and Mary lives with Celestine until her home (connected to the shop) is repaired. After three days, Celestine is edgy. Mary disrupts the routine she and Dot have established and is constantly doing some psychic study. Mary always wears a turban over her hair now, and she looks like some kind of psychic as she tries to read the lines in Celestine’s and Dot’s hands.
Mary and Dot have a common bond: neither of them wants to obey Celestine and they laugh at her conspiratorially behind her back. Celestine feels as if she is living with two unruly daughters.
Dot will play Joseph in her school’s Christmas play, and Mary offers to bring one of her jell-o salads for the event. Celestine hates Mary’s quirky jell-o salads. The play is called The Donkey of Destiny, and Dot claims she hates the donkey. Celestine cannot explore this without Mary involving herself, so she allows Dot to wrestle with her feelings alone. Pfef loves Dot but does not intrude himself into her life, something Mary does routinely.
The next morning, Mary gloatingly reveals that Dot actually loves the boy who plays the front end of the donkey. Celestine resents that she is the one who has to try to make Dot do and eat all the right things while Mary helps Dot break rules and have fun.
On the morning of the play, Dot effusively hugs both women before dashing off to meet the bus. Mary leaves for the shop. Celestine takes the day off and plans to make a “secret dish” for the potluck dinner after the play. She knows people will find it strange and blame Mary.
Pfef drives Celestine and her foil-covered dish to the school; they sit with Mary in the front row. Mary does not speak to Pfef because he has befriended Dot and is responsible for bringing beets to Argus. The play begins. The donkey’s costume is quite unpleasant, but Dot looks exactly right as Joseph. Joseph buys the donkey before its owner sells it to the glue factory, but the costumes cause some trouble and Dot, in frustration, ends up smashing one of the boys in the donkey costume.
The auditorium erupts and Dot escapes. The women find her at home, shivering in a corner. Though nothing is physically wrong with her, Dot is like a trapped animal. She cries and is too exhausted to avoid Celestine’s arms around her...
(The entire section is 506 words.)
Pages 230-232 Summary
Adelaide has been brooding for days and Omar knows she is “building up a fit of anger.” He understands that her rages have little to do with him but are the accumulation of her feelings which are damned up for a time but will eventually burst. When the dam brakes, Omar stays out of Adelaide’s way as she pounds and beats and curses until she finds some peace.
Omar wakes up alone in bed, so he sneaks downstairs to “spy on her mood.” Adelaide’s skin has turned white with age but her throat and waist are still supple; her red hair stands out like an electric shock and she regularly snaps at customers who come to examine their birds. She is now subdued, sitting at the kitchen table with some hot chocolate.
Omar watches the birds in their silver-domed gazebo, thinking that he and Adelaide are viciously tied together, as he feels her pain “like it is inside him” but is unable to help her heal. As he feeds the birds, Omar hears Adelaide throwing glassware. He is not upset at the cost or worried that she will hurt herself; he is oppressed by the waiting. He imagines how they will hold hands, play cards, and laugh once Adelaide returns to herself.
The house is now silent except for the swish of the broom as Adelaide cleans up the mess. Finally Omar enters the kitchen to find Adelaide standing in the middle of the room, her feet “smeared with blood.” Her face is pale and pinched as she looks directly at him with frightened eyes. Adelaide pours herself a cup of coffee. Omar reaches to grab it before it spills.
(The entire section is 282 words.)
Pages 233-254 Summary
Mary and Celestine love Dot too much, "and for that sin she [makes] them miserable.” Dot has Mary’s stubbornness, Celestine’s occasional cruelty, Karl’s irresponsibility, and Sita’s vanity. Wallace Pfef routinely avoids Celestine and Dot for months at a time, but one thing draws him back: Dot’s fearlessness.
She is afraid of nothing and cares tenderly even for loathsome creatures, but she starves her mother and aunt. Pfef made significant money on sugar beets and now lives a leisurely life; Dot likes to work with him on various projects. When she runs away to live with her dad, Pfef finds her curled up at the top of his cellar stairs. When Dot claims that her father is not a bum like her Aunt Mary claims he is, Pfef realizes his allegiance has shifted over the years and he cannot defend Karl to his daughter.
Finally he tells Dot she should just forget Karl, releasing all the poison he had not realized he was carrying. Karl got Celestine pregnant and then left, he borrowed money from Sita and caused her to be sent to an asylum, he sells things that do not work, he drinks and lies, he makes a living by conning people, and he once kicked Pfef’s dog. All of these vices make him more attractive to Dot, so he lamely adds that Karl also hates children, but Dot does not believe him and then Celestine arrives.
This is the year in which a war is brewing, public heroes are killed, the government cannot be trusted, and missile silos are being built in North Dakota. The worst event for Pfef this year, however, is when he fails Dot.
Pfef is anxious to watch Dot in her Christmas play, but the worst disaster happens when he sees Karl’s face so clearly in Dot’s as she plays Joseph. Pfef is shaken but tries to seem natural until he can get home. After the fiasco on stage, Dot appears at his door and wants to tell him something, but Pfef is too shaken from fighting his suppressed memories that he physically rejects her. Her face clenches into a ball of hate before she runs home.
From then on, Dot studiously despises Pfef and rejects any overtures he makes toward her. Celestine agrees to let him host Dot’s eleventh birthday party. Mary, Sita, Louis, and all of Dot’s classmates are invited (though only four of them attend). Although the potential for trouble is great, Pfef enjoys making preparations for the party which he hopes will prompt Dot to forgive him. Pfef has to get Mary drunk...
(The entire section is 505 words.)
Pages 255-260 Summary
Karl likes motels with strange names, so he is disappointed to learn that the “ox Hotel” in Argus has a burnt-out F and is really just the Fox Hotel. After he gets settled, Karl dials Wallace Pfef’s telephone number. Pfef answers and says hello many times before Karl hangs up the telephone without speaking. He considers calling Mary but dials Celestine’s number instead.
He assumes his wife will recognize his voice, but he is dismayed when she suspiciously asks who it is. Karl tells her and says he is unexpectedly in Argus for the night and thinks he might stop by to see her and Wallacette. When Celestine remains silent, he suggests she could join him for a drink or he could take her and Wallacette to dinner. Finally Celestine reminds Karl that he promised to stay away. He reminds her that it has been fourteen years, and Celestine seems to relent. She agrees to meet him for breakfast the next morning. He is surprised at the longing in his voice when he agrees.
Karl wakes up too early and gets ready too soon, so he finds himself sitting alone in a booth waiting for Celestine and Wallacette to arrive. He is jittery from smoking too many cigarettes and drinking too much coffee on an empty stomach, but he is shocked to see that his daughter has become a young woman. He is surprised Celestine lets her dress as she does. He sees Wallacette looking around eagerly and watches her face fall when he steps toward them.
Karl looks has aged considerably, becoming “shrewd and hard and gray.” Celestine says she is sorry they are late, but she looks like she is sorry they came. The women watch him closely, and Karl grandly proclaims that he is paying so they should order anything they want. Wallacette just keeps staring at him, and he finally asks how old she is. Wallacette says she is fourteen and wonders why her mother has not told him she is called Dot, not Wallacette. Celestine explains that their daughter goes by the nickname Mary gave her.
Dot says Karl is not what she expected; he tells her she is not what he expected, either, which surprises her a little. The three of them sit in silence waiting to order, but the waitress seems to have forgotten them. Lots of activity is happening around them, but none of it prompts them to conversation. Karl finally asks Celestine if Dot has any kind of male influence in her life; when Celestine pauses, Karl discovers he truly wants to know the...
(The entire section is 496 words.)
Pages 263-280 Summary
The butcher shop is barely breaking even, but the women refuse to open on Sundays like the chain and discount stores. Like the shop, they are getting older. One day Mary will sell the shop for a tidy profit, and Celestine has insisted on receiving retirement benefits. Mary shows Celestine a red brick which flew through a window in her house. Celestine assumes it was vandalism, but Mary, as always, is convinced it is a sign of trouble.
That night, Celestine uncharacteristically dreams. Sita stands in her front yard watching for someone to come and saying she calls but Celestine never comes. The dream seems acutely real to Celestine. Mary thinks Sita must want to see her former friend and offers to accompany her.
Celestine is concerned about leaving Dot alone because Dot has been anxious ever since she was nominated as a princess in the contest Pfef invented for the Beet Festival. Dot spends her time writing secretively in her diary, trying to lose weight, and working at the local theater where she smokes and acquires bad habits and depressing thoughts.
Sita lives just thirteen miles away, but she has never called or invited either woman to visit. They do not know how long Sita might need them but are prepared to stay. They must bring Mary’s dog along, even though “Sita hates dogs.” Mary knits; Celestine drives and thinks about the sewing machine Mary’s mother sent her but which Mary gave to Sita. Celestine would have appreciated any gesture from her mother, but Mary does not even admit the machine was ever hers.
Sita looks sick like she did in Celestine’s dream, but instead of greeting her guests she hollers at the dog. Sita’s house is impersonal but there is no sign of her sickness. Sita goes upstairs and it sounds like she is bathing; the women decide to make some coffee and discover a mass of pills hidden in a canister. They throw them away, thinking Sita is crazy and might poison herself. When Sita returns, they can see she had not been bathing.
When Sita eats some cake Mary brought, she discovers a wing from an Indian meal moth (which she learned about from her late husband Louis) and suddenly starts screaming about filthy insects in her house. She dumps the cake in the trash can. Mary fights back by scorning the pills she found in the canister. Sita demands to know where they are and digs desperately through the trash before furtively clutching them to her.
(The entire section is 503 words.)
Pages 281-289 Summary
Sita does not enjoy having Mary and Celestine here, even wishes they would get sick and leave, but she sleeps far away from them on the pool table downstairs because she likes it. The recreation room is full of things from both of her husbands and serves as a kind of shrine to both of them and yet neither of them. Sita has moved all of her favorite things down here, so it is her room now.
She used to have her pills, “the little stockpiled prescriptions that were Louis’s legacy,” stashed everywhere; however, she kept forgetting where she hid them. No doctors will write her any more prescriptions, so these leftovers are invaluable to her. The room is always dark, and she can do nearly anything she wants by remote control, a system Louis designed for his own convenience.
She has been in less pain since the night Mary nearly hit her with a brick; something about the shock “shorted out a series of nerve connections.” One of the reasons she does not call the police to rid herself of the women is because she is afraid someone will take her pills, something she could not bear. Sita’s left arm is numb and useless.
Mary and Celestine want to take her to see Dot crowned princess at the Beet Festival, and Sita finally relents. They are making deliveries but will come back for her soon. Just getting up is an energy-sapping chore for her, and she involuntarily lands face-down on the floor. She manages to retrieve her pills from a waterproof box out of the toilet and is shocked to see how few she has left. She has a conversation with herself and knows that without Louis and without her pills, her fate is the state mental hospital. She swallows the remaining pills and turns on the water for a bath. The rush of the pills matches the rush of the water.
The pills block her pain and Sita is able to stand. She puts on Adelaide’s garnet filigreed necklace, something Mary has never seen but will probably not care about anyway. Once Sita was at the butcher shop and told Dot a romanticized version of her grandmother Adelaide’s life; the girl was mesmerized and Sita was thrilled that, for even a short time, she was able to steal the girl from Mary just as Mary stole Celestine from her.
Sita dresses all in white and does her makeup and hair the best she can before starting to climb the fourteen stairs to the main floor. She has to stop to rest and thinks about how much her parents...
(The entire section is 482 words.)
Pages 290-297 Summary
Mary and Celestine drive up to Sita’s house and see her, dressed in white, standing erectly and inspecting her yew bushes. Her purse is on the ground next to her feet, her legs seems like wooden blocks propping her up, and her demeanor says she is impatient. Mary comments to Celestine that Sita is probably upset that they are late. Celestine is annoyed that Sita decided to come, for she had hoped to watch the parade and enjoy Dot’s crowning without any judgment or distraction from Sita.
Mary can see that Sita has decided to be unpleasant. She does not even greet them when they get out of Mary’s truck to help her. When Celestine and Mary each take one of Sita’s arms in an attempt to help her through the tangled branches below her, they notice Sita’s coldness at the same time. Nothing about Sita’s expression reveals that she is dead, but clearly she is. In their shock, neither Mary nor Celestine quite knows what to do next.
Mary starts to notice some details. Sita’s ruby necklace, “familiar looking and antique,” had snagged on a branch and helped hold Sita’s head up, and her arms were propped strategically in divided trunks to hold her body up. They consider taking her body down but do not know what to do with it after that. Celestine is annoyed that Sita chose today to die, a distraction to Dot’s important day. Mary suspects Celestine has not yet entirely realized that Sita’s death is permanent.
Because of the Beet Parade, it is unlikely anyone will be at the funeral home in Argus, so Mary decides they must take Sita with them rather than leaving her here to be brought later by strangers. They carry her between them, and she is heavy, much heavier than when she was alive. Mary does not want to load her into the back “like any common delivery,” but she is too stiff to bend so she can sit in the passenger seat. They poke and prod with great effort until Celestine finally hits a nerve, causing Sita’s body to collapse into a perfect sitting position.
Celestine is surprised to discover she is crying once Sita is settled. They drive in silent distraction until Officer Lovchik pulls Mary over for speeding. Lovchik has always had a crush on Sita and renewed his interest in her after Louis died; now he tells Sita hello and is “hurt but unsurprised” when Sita does not reply. Lovchik gives Mary a warning ticket; when he is gone, Mary wonders why they did not let the officer take...
(The entire section is 506 words.)
Pages 298-300 Summary
An orderly gets Russell Kashpaw dressed and ready to transport while Fleur sternly supervises the proceedings. The orderly dresses Russell in his military uniform, and Fleur takes his medals from a leather case and pins them just above Russell’s heart. She puts his rifle, in a long, olive case, on his lap, and Russell waits for someone to put his hat on in the same jaunty position he wore it for his formal military photographs.
The orderly wheels Russell up the ramp and into the nursing-home van; they drive for an hour and suddenly they arrive. He is whisked out of the van and down the ramp, where Russell sees parade participants. No one pays any attention to him except for a brief comment by his former boss.
The orderly manages to get Russell up onto the American Legion float and strap him in before the float starts to move. At first Russell stares at the crowd as he passes them, but the noise is tiring and soon his chin drops and his eyes close; suddenly the crowd seems quite distant from him and he has a vision.
His sister Isabel is on the road ahead of him, looking back with her familiar grin. Russell realizes this is the “road of death” which the Chippewas talk about, and he calmly realizes he must be dead. At first he is sorry he did not die in a more private setting, but soon he is amused that everyone is “saluting a dead Indian.” He laughs so hard he falls off the road before he gets past “the point of no return.” When he opens his eyes, he realizes he is at the end of the parade and his sister will not come back for him, no matter how hard he calls her.
(The entire section is 301 words.)
Pages 301-311 Summary
With every year, Dot grew angrier, created more trouble, and put herself in more danger. In grade school she had no friends, but now she has enemies. Mary, Celestine, and Pfef are her worst enemies until she needs something from them; once they give her everything they have, Dot resents them for it.
Dot’s spite is only thing the three adults have in common, and they are shocked by what they had created. Her friends are druggies and hoodlums, she has no interest in anything but trouble, and if she were not related to her, Mary would have disowned her. Pfef, however, has “fundamental and abiding” faith in her courage. Pfef knows that if the adults who love her “can hardly stand her,” she must really hate herself.
At one time, Dot used to share her lofty aspirations, her bitter grievances, and her hopeful dreams with Pfef. That is when he has the idea to make one of Dot’s fantasies come true; he hopes that will “change her whole view of the world as against her.” He plans to create a new queen in Argus, and the Beet Queen would be superior to the others because in Argus “the sugar beet is king.”
Pfef is up all night planning a five-day festival, an extravaganza ending in Dot’s crowning; and he imagines Dot’s amazement and gratefulness in the end. The planning takes only a night, but executing the plan takes Pfef a year of hard work. Others offer to help, but he is obsessed with every detail and insists on doing most of the work himself, envisioning Dot as Queen Wallacette, for that is who she is in his heart. Everyone must see her beauty as he does, so Pfef decides to “rig the vote.”
Pfef breaks his health in an effort to make this event a success for Dot. The weather is the one thing he cannot control, and Argus is in a draught. The doctor diagnosed Pfef with “nervous exhaustion,” but Pfef keeps working. He spends an entire night filling out a false set of ballots and rehearsing his smile when he announces Wallacette as the Beet Queen.
The draught continues, and Pfef works harder. His efforts have made him look “lined and ancient,” and he is horrified to learn that Karl will be coming for the Beet Festival. Pfef is “in no shape to see him, or be seen.”
Pfef expends all his energy on the Festival and has to call on his meager reserve to sit in the dunk tank for a Lions Club fundraiser. He is barely able to keep his balance on the seat as...
(The entire section is 504 words.)
Pages 312-315 Summary
Nearly everything that arrives into or leaves from Argus comes by truck, but Father Jude Miller does not like driving and arrives from Minneapolis by train. Though there is some kind of celebration happening in Argus, he is the only passenger to get off the train. The train continues its journey and the priest stands alone at the Argus depot. It is hot, and the heat “set[s] him at a boil.” He is here to discover the truth after reading a letter his mother gave him two days ago.
Miller is a warm, sensible man who is satisfied with his calling, and at first he was not even curious about the contents of the letter. His mother is weak and quite sick, so she is not particularly concerned about anything but her own health. Then he grows curious about Argus, the people, and the butcher shop. Now that he is here, he can see that there is nothing unusual about this town.
He begins to search for the butcher shop, walking down the main street with his jacket slung over one shoulder. The House of Meats is rather dilapidated but is still in business, though it has a closed sign on the door.
His red hair is curling in the humidity and his hands, which are generally long and nimble, now seem to belong to someone else. Suddenly the parade watchers surround him and he is “shoved and molded, arranged into a new form by the crowd’s hips and elbows.” Everything becomes a blur of noise and sound, and the only thing holding him together is the crush of the crowd. Once the crowd disperses, he will fall apart and even his clever hands will not be able to reshape him into his old form.
(The entire section is 297 words.)
Pages 316-323 Summary
Karl Adare has always “traveled light.” His habit has been to throw away or leave behind worn clothes, finished books, old correspondence, and records he is tired of listening to; but things have changed. He has “outlived something careless” in himself. Most men Karl’s age grow dissatisfied with the things they have accumulated. Karl is the opposite. He wants everything he has left behind him.
After months of dissatisfaction, Karl realizes that what he really wants is the futures of all the people he knows. When Celestine’s note about the Beet Queen candidates reaches him, he is ecstatic and proudly shows everyone his daughter until his manager is sick of hearing him and asks when he last saw Dot. Karl quits his job and packs everything he owns in his Plymouth.
After he has a revelation of some sweetness he once had but has since lost, he knows he has to go immediately to Argus to see his daughter crowned Beet Queen. The last time he saw Dot, she gave him a slight concussion by throwing a can of oysters at his head. Wallace Pfef is the kind of man Karl has always disdained, subservient and unselfish. And yet Karl is going back to them.
Karl arrives in Argus at dawn on the day of the parade and parks in the shade of some grain elevators and remembers the day he and Celestine got married. After their civil ceremony, he took her and Dot to the finest restaurant in Rapid City and hoped Celestine might relent and let him come live with her again, but she confirmed that their marriage was “only a formality.”
This morning he is “disreputable, unshaven, unwashed, covered with road dust,” and hungry. At the diner, he watches the backs of the people as they watch the parade pass by; although he cleans up in the bathroom, Karl still looks like a “bleary old bum.” He sees a truck advertising The House of Meats behind the grandstand. Karl sees Sita sitting in the truck and thinks that she looks younger than her years, regal and elegant in her “rich red garnet necklace.”
The necklace causes him to remember his mother, and Karl decides to visit with Sita. He slides into the driver’s seat and is suddenly overcome with tiredness. The air conditioner is on and it is quiet, so Karl dozes for a moment. When he wakes, Sita is gazing straight ahead, so he looks, too, and sees Pfef sitting in the dunking booth. Then Karl sees Dot, dressed up but looking like a sailor on shore...
(The entire section is 500 words.)
Pages 324-328 Summary
Mary and Celestine are torn between sitting high in the grandstands under an awning and roasting in the front row closest to the royal platform. They choose the front row and wait in silence. They see a priest sitting at the end of the row, and Celestine considers getting him to help Sita, but Mary reminds her that Sita has left the church. It does feel as they should have done something for Sita, and Celestine thinks the solid-looking priest looks quite capable of helping if they asked him.
Russell arrives and finally the princesses claim the platform. Dot is the last to arrive. Mary thinks Dot looks stunning, like an “ancient pagan goddess,” but Celestine thinks her daughter looks uncomfortable and perhaps desperate. The entire crowd is uncomfortable, even miserable. Karl and Pfef, both soaked, are distraught, and Pfef explains to the women that Dot knows he rigged the pageant to get her elected. Celestine does not believe him, but Mary always expects the worst and is not surprised.
As the mayor drones out his prepared welcome speech, the pilot of a small plane in the nearly field prepares to do what Pfef paid him to do. Suddenly Dot runs off the platform and, without asking, hauls herself into the plane. The crowd is mesmerized as the plane takes off and glides in and out of the clouds above them before skywriting “Queen Wallacette” in the air before “disappearing over the treeline.”
After a few seconds of silence, the mayor gives Celestine the roses Dot should have received; soon the entire grandstand is empty except for four people, all of them listening for the airplane’s return. They are a strangely connected group, watching Dot’s name get sucked, letter by letter, back into space.
(The entire section is 296 words.)
Pages 329-338 Summary
Dot hates the green dress her Aunt Mary bought for her and refuses to wear it, but she loses the argument. She is near the floats, watching her Uncle Wallace try to bring order to the chaos; she can tell by how Pfef acts that this is her day and he has done something to ensure that she will be crowned Beet Queen.
Dot and the others climb onto their float. She sees an orderly unloading her Uncle Russell from a van and is appalled at how Russell sags in his wheelchair. She hollers for someone to give him a drink until someone finally brings Russell some water and the American Legion float begins its parade journey.
The crowds are quite near the float, and Dot hears several women discussing her. They claim to know Dot will win because Pfef rigged the election. The other girls on the float hear this and turn to look at her, obviously eager to spread the gossip as soon as possible. While Dot somehow felt that Pfef did this awful thing, she had assumed it would be silent and unknown, not gossiped about publicly.
The other girls begin to taunt her and her dress, and Dot threatens to kill them. She has “never felt so desperate” and begins to plot her revenge. She has only been angry at Pfef once before, and that was more out of spite than real anger. This time, though, he is the cause of her greatest humiliation.
Dot rushes to find Pfef. He is in the dunking booth and she screams at him, accusing him of telling others’ about his cheating before she hits the target and dunks him. First she considers faking a seizure and escaping the coronation ceremony. Instead she realizes there is a distinct thread running from her grandmother Adelaide to her father and now to her: flight.
As she hops into the airplane, she tells the pilot the queen is supposed to fly and he takes her. She is quite sick as they fly, but the pilot cannot land until he writes her entire name. He lands near the deserted grandstand an hour later. She had imagined a few waiting here for her and is disappointed to see they have all gone. A closer look reveals her mother standing alone on the platform; Dot sees the force of Celestine’s love in her mother’s eyes.
Celestine tells Dot that Sita is dead and Mary is at the funeral parlor with her. She dreads telling her that Karl is home; but they notice Karl’s car, parked for a quick exit, at Pfef’s house.
Dot and Celestine sit and talk, then...
(The entire section is 506 words.)