The Beet Queen deals primarily with marginal people who live socially and culturally displaced lives. This marginality is a source of both strength and grief for Erdrich’s characters. Wallace Pfef, an outstanding civic leader, is marginal as a homosexual in a small, Midwestern town and in his role as substitute father to Dot Adare. Yet it is precisely his love for Karl and Dot that provides his greatest joy and pain. In addition to being socially marginal, Erdrich’s characters are culturally marginal; they live under codes of both Christianity and archetypal myths.
The families in The Beet Queen are also marginal. Although the novel might be seen as a family saga portraying three generations, the plot suggests that there are many nonbiological ties that link people. Mary grows up with her Aunt Fritzie, who prefers Mary to her own daughter, Sita. Celestine, who is Karl’s wife, spends much more time with Wallace, who often plays the role of husband. Celestine’s relationship with Mary is also ambiguous. While the two women are close friends by choice, it is not until Celestine bears Mary’s niece that confrontations arise. These complex, mixed roles produce gaps in the clear line of relationships that inform traditional family sagas and are suggestive of tribal kinship systems.
Erdrich’s method of characterization emphasizes this conflict between nuclear family and tribal codes. Mary, Karl, Celestine, and Dot are not...
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