Louise Erdrich’s second novel is set in the same part of North Dakota as her award-winning Love Medicine (1984) and covers much the same stretch of time. A few characters reappear—Eli Kashpaw, Officer Lovchik, Dot Adare. Both books are made up of semi-independent chapters in various narrative viewpoints, some of which have been published as short stories. Yet in texture, effect, and theme, the novels are very different. The Beet Queen, for all its occasional zaniness, is a bleak book; its people do not connect with one another or with the land. They are so repressed that their hunger for love and family breaks out in sudden, inarticulate excess that makes people flee for fear of being devoured. The technical facility and the careful thematic control reveal new facets of Erdrich’s skill.
Although The Beet Queen, like Love Medicine, is made up of interwoven stories, it has a more linear structure. Love Medicine was a tapestry, a weaving and touching and crossing that created constantly surprising new patterns; The Beet Queen is constructed to a plan, revealing how pieces which interlock can still retain borders and boundaries that keep them from blending. Possibly the structure of the two books reveals one difference between the German and the Chippewa elements of Erdrich’s heritage—at any rate, her subject here is townspeople, and the central figures are unrooted and non-Indian.
The story begins and ends with scenes of flight—literal flight, in airplanes. Like many other pieces of the plot, these two scenes are improbable enough to verge on the surreal, yet their matter-of-fact narration makes them seem almost ordinary, while their metaphoric or expressive content fuels the meaning of the tale. As the book opens, in 1932, Mary and Karl Adare’s mother, Adelaide, hops aboard a fairgrounds airplane with a seedy barnstormer billed as “The Great Omar, Aeronaught Extraordinaire,” and disappears from their lives. Mary and Karl are illegitimate; Adelaide’s married lover died in a freak accident which may have been suicide. The kids hop a freight headed for Argus, where their Aunt Fritzie and her husband, Pete, own a butcher shop. Karl, in a moment of panic, jumps back on the train; Mary is taken in by Aunt Fritzie (to the intense jealousy of Fritzie’s own daughter, Sita) and soon also steals Sita’s best friend, Celestine James. The remainder of the novel traces the intersection of their lives at scattered intervals over the next forty years.
Yet though the characters are connected, their stories are marked by disruption and disconnection. Parents desert or die; children are fostered by sisters or aunts (or craved by pseudoparents). Wallace Pfef—Chamber of Commerce president, Jaycee activist, the man who brings sugar-beet prosperity to Argus—provides an excuse for remaining single by displaying the picture of a “dead fiancée” he bought at a farm auction, but even so he fails to recognize his homosexuality until, well into adulthood, he encounters Karl in a hotel room. Because they have never seen their emotions reflected or mirrored by others, the book’s central figures are so needy that their fierce hungers and bizarre attempts to satisfy their cravings are immediately self-defeating.
At eleven, Mary regrets Karl’s loss primarily because she feels weak if she has no one to protect and look out for. In Aunt Fritzie’s house, she spies out ways to be useful: “I planned to be essential to them all, so depended upon that they could never send me off. I did this on purpose, because I soon found out that I had nothing else to offer.” Mary is an unattractive and unlovable character—yet Erdrich writes with such empathy that one cannot help caring about her. Mary’s grasping and conniving and her fierce selfishness are her only defense against a world which has given her nothing voluntarily.
Karl also remains fixed for life in a rather adolescent emotional pattern created by his early experience. Riding the rails at age fourteen and overwhelmed by yearnings that he does not analyze, Karl seeks closeness with another man, initiates a homosexual encounter, and declares his love. When it is rejected, Karl’s life is set; forty years later he is still a rover, a traveling salesman for one gimcrack after another, never again willing to expose his feelings.
Another motif in The Beet Queen has to do with women’s social roles. None is shown to be satisfactory. Adelaide abandons motherhood, leaving behind a nursing infant (as well as Karl and Mary) when she flies away. The beauty-queen ideal of...
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