The Beet Queen (Magill's Literary Annual 1987)
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...
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Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
This is one in a series of Erdrich stories set in the fictitious town of Argus, North Dakota, a place that has been compared to William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. The story’s protagonist, Mary Lavelle, is not the Beet Queen of the title; indeed, the Beet Queen does not appear in this story at all and there is only scant reference to sugar beets. This absent persona, however, suggests a contrasting of values in the making of the character of Mary Lavelle, the daughter of failed farmers of the beet valley, forced out by foreclosure, now orphaned, clearly an outsider, returning to the rural region of her birth in a determined effort to find a place for herself.
Similes much like those found in Flannery O’Connor’s short stories abound in this piece, but they are expressive of a much kinder, more compassionate outlook: “The train pulled like a string of black beads over the horizon”; “our faces stared back at us like ghosts”; “It was the baby, born heavy as lead, dropping straight through the clouds and my mother’s body”; “over us the clouds spread into a thin sheet that covered the sky like muslin.” Mary voices these comparisons during the train ride to Argus and as the details of life accumulate, these intricately woven similes, gentle and implicit, emphasize a transformation coming on and her metamorphosis from child to adult is given credibility.
The subtle tone of compassionate irony, rather than broad and...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The Beet Queen’s culmination in a bizarre beauty contest stands in ironic counterpoint to the odd looks of most of its major characters and the unhappiness of even its beauties, Adelaide, Karl, and Sita. As elsewhere, Louise Erdrich is interested in the interaction of a number of families, related not only by blood but also by (usually informal) adoption, and the often-unpredictable development of character over decades of the twentieth century. Her particular focus is upon American Indians—the Chippewas who dominate the interrelated other parts of the tetralogy, Love Medicine (1984), Tracks (1988), and The Bingo Palace (1994)—and the German Americans who occupy the center of interest here. In the comminglings of these worlds, she peoples her books with powerful and usually unconventional women. The geography of her fictional world includes real places (Minneapolis, for example, sometimes coupled with St. Paul as “The Cities”) and fictitious ones (such as the Argus, North Dakota, of The Beet Queen), along with a Chippewa reservation which seems to lie between these points. Yet that world itself is otherwise imaginary, like William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County—to which it has been compared—and often its realism is tinged with magic.
American Indian critics suggest that the novel is a European form ill-suited for even fictional realization of their lifestyle, but Erdrich’s narrative format...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
While all Erdrich’s novels and stories offer portraits of strong, capable, and interesting women—probably at least partially reflective of the matriarchal tradition in Chippewa life, as well as the relatives and friends whom she credits in her various “Acknowledgments”—The Beet Queen is especially significant in its depiction of female bonding not only in lifelong friendship but also and especially in a successful work relationship. Indeed, Erdrich seems in the latter aspect to provide an answer to Virginia Woolf’s plea in A Room of One’s Own (1927) that women need more than the one-dimensional fictional roles assigned to them in the overwhelmingly male literary tradition. Woolf argued that women should be shown working together and liking one another at that work.
Woolf’s brief example offered a laboratory as setting: In The Beet Queen, that environment is the Argus butcher shop that Mary takes over from the Kozkas and runs with Celestine’s help. Images of the two women at work in a male-identified trade fill the pages of the book. In their private lives, too, Celestine and Mary are partners in the rearing of Dot, the daughter of Mary’s feckless brother Karl, in which they are aided by Wallace, who—as a closet homosexual—forms an unconventional fourth in what is decidedly a nonnuclear family. Erdrich’s portraits of and nonjudgmental attitude toward such untraditional parenting mirrors some present-day...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko attacked The Beet Queen in a 1986 review for failing to represent Native American history and causes and for being interested only in "self-referential writing." Of the tetralogy's four novels, the action of The Beet Queen seems furthest afield. One good way to open up the content of the novel in a discussion is to see the characters in the book, off reservation Native Americans and whites, as an explanation of alternative kinship and friendship ties to the idea of the tribe. Of course examining the artistry of the narrative, its gaps and jumps in time, its group of characters rather than its hero or heroine, its point of view and symbolic method, are good topics to examine, but the contrast of white and off-reservation Native American lives needs to be pursued.
1. The Beet Queen contrasts voluntary relationships and formal kinship ties throughout. What conclusions could be drawn from comparing these varying types of relationship?
2. People struggle to understand love throughout their lives. What understandings of why one is loved do these characters have?
3. A tribe resembles an extended family, but it is really larger, has a history, and the ties are, perhaps, tighter. Russell Kashpaw and Celestine James are living a dual town and reservation existence. What problems of identity does this cause for them?
4. Appearance, and our concern with it, is a...
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Erdrich often imbues action with symbolic and mythic overtones. Karl buries his head in the fragrant blossoms of a tree and then tears off one of its branches to defend himself from a dog. In the process he scatters the blossoms and kills the tree. Later Mary decodes the scene by noting her irritation with Karl, whose "face glowed in the blossoms' reflected light, pink and radiant, so like the way he sat beneath our mother's stroking hand." Symbolic writing such as this, and mythic writing, especially when Erdrich is dealing with native American characters, powerfully impresses itself on her readers' imaginations.
The most important literary influence on Erdrich is clearly William Faulkner, in particular, his handling of time and narrative point of view. Erdrich uses, for the most part, multiple first person narrators in The Beet Queen, clustering them around a single experience or a common place. The crowning of the Beet Queen late in the novel, for example, is told from the perspectives of Wallace Pfef, Dot, Karl, and briefly, Celestine and Mary. This is similar to the multiple narrators Faulkner uses in As I Lay Dying (1930), where several characters describe the same events, such as Addie's dying or the crossing of the river during the burial journey.
Faulkner's thematically linked short stories also provide a useful model for Erdrich. In novels composed of short stories such as The Unvanquished (1938) or Go Down,...
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The Beet Queen is part of a tetralogy that includes Love Medicine, 1984, linked short stories; Tracks, 1988, novel; and The Bingo Palace, 1994, novel.
Love Medicine is a mirror image of The Beet Queen in several respects. Both are part of a developing tetralogy set in the immediate environment of the North Dakota-Minnesota border. While The Beet Queen ends with Dot's awareness of those who love her, Love Medicine ends with Lipsha's discovery of his identity. His observation, "Belonging was a matter of deciding to," could apply to either novel. Both books cluster first person narrators around a place or event and connect disparate stories thematically rather than causally.
The Beet Queen, possibly because it concentrates on white characters, is less mythic and symbolic than Love Medicine. Such mythic and symbolic resonances are more natural in the world of Erdrich's native American characters than in the world of the white settlers and their descendants.
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Banks, Russell. “Border Country.” The Nation 243 (November 1, 1986): 460-462. Banks reviews The Beet Queen and finds it an almost perfect example of classical comedy. Mary Adare is described as “one of the most memorable women in recent American fiction.” The novel is compared favorably with recent books of similar style.
Castillo, Susan Perez. “Postmodernism, Native American Literature, and the Real: The Silko-Erdrich Controversy.” Massachusetts Review 32 (Summer, 1991): 285-284. Castillo compares the tone and approach of Erdrich’s novels The Beet Queen and Tracks to Leslie Marmon Silko’s works. She concludes that although these writers differ in many respects, they have much in common. It is this commonality that offers the reader an instructive glimpse into Native American oral tradition.
Erdrich, Louise, and Michael Dorris. “Louise Erdrich, Michael Dorris: A Marriage of Minds.” Interview by Michael Schumacher. Writer’s Digest 71 (June, 1991): 28-59. An interview with the collaborators, focusing upon how their books and essays are written, both those bearing only one of their names (such as the The Beet Queen) and those bearing both. Erdrich and Dorris discuss, among other things, the importance of orality in American Indian tradition as well as in their own talking out of...
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