Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 522 words.)
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Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The function of a parable is to teach readers how, from the natural occurrences of life, one may discover moral and ethical attitudes essential to humankind. Erdrich’s work is expressive of this tradition stemming from the oral traditions of American fiction, in which the journey becomes a metaphor for life, characters are archetypal, conflicts are gradually and slowly drawn and sustained, and endings are satisfactorily resolved. Themes that rise from the tradition of the parable are often predictable, but that does not make the story less interesting or the writer less skilled. On the contrary, these kinds of stories often loosen the spirit in ways that more complex stories do not. Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe of Indians, a cultural group whose storytelling traditions clarify the journey convention as deliberately as any other. “After that train journey I was not a child,” says Mary Lavelle, her movement toward adulthood complete before she reaches her teens. “The Beet Queen” is clearly a story about a girl who has had no childhood, robbed of it by the circumstances of her grim environment.
A second theme, one of the significant recurring themes in twentieth century narrative fiction, is that of the loss of traditional values. Certainly, this story’s events and ironic tone seize on this idea. It becomes apparent to the careful reader, however, that in the closing lines there is a hunger expressed by the youthful...
(The entire section is 408 words.)
Anthropologists have asserted that rules governing kinship ties are the basis of a society; and it is these kinship rules that are the primary focus of The Beet Queen. The novel depicts the gap between expected family ties and what people actually do.
The Beet Queen begins with a mother, Adelaide, abandoning her children at an orphan's fair, and flying away with a stunt pilot. The baby, Jude, is taken by a childless couple, while two other children, Mary Adare and her brother Karl, hop a freight train to seek protection from their aunt and uncle in North Dakota. Unable to accept substitutes for his mother, Karl flees their care. For her part, Mary attempts to earn the love of her aunt and uncle, unaware that it is being freely given. For Karl, the fear of emotional rejection inspires flight from a possible love to an imagined, ideal love. Sita, Karl's cousin, uses her beauty to pursue her ideal love, while Russell Kashpaw, a native American, tries to earn love through bravery, showing off his war wounds at patriotic occasions and military parades.
While Sita, Karl, and Russell flee kinship relations but find no substitute, others in the novel use friendship and kinship ties to create and to love. Dot was abandoned by her father, Karl, but she was well-loved by her mother, Celestine James; her aunt, Mary Adare; and Wallace Pfef, her father's former lover. Unlike Mary and Karl, who are scarred by their mother's abandonment, Dot...
(The entire section is 282 words.)