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 presence.
Mary shares Sita’s room, wears her clothes, steals Sita’s best friend, Celestine, and performs a miracle at their school. Sita, a pretty, vain, self-centered girl, longs to have her own apartment in the big city and become a model. When Fritzie develops lung trouble and she and Pete move to Arizona, Sita moves to Fargo to seek her fortune. Mary, who has been working at the butcher shop all along, hires Celestine to help her and continues to run it successfully.
Karl Adare, a traveling salesman of various sleazy products, comes to Argus to visit Mary and perhaps Wallace Pfef, with whom he has had a homosexual encounter at a crop and livestock convention in Minneapolis. He arrives at the butcher shop when Mary is out and meets Celestine, ripe for her first romantic adventure. Overcome with lust, they entangle in a brief coupling that astonishes them both. Karl then sells Celestine a knife from his sample case and vanishes, but he turns up two weeks later at Celestine’s house. Still filled with ideas of popular romance, Celestine leads him upstairs to her bedroom. This time, Karl stays. After two months, Celestine asks him to leave because of Mary’s disapproval and her own independent spirit. Unwillingly, he goes, but as a parting shot, he informs Celestine that she is pregnant with his baby.
Karl next visits his cousin, Sita, who has divorced her first husband and is now married to Louis, a county health inspector. Because of the divorce, Sita has lapsed from the Catholic church that was a mainstay of her life and is in precarious mental health. When Karl gives her a Bible that has Celestine’s name in it, the unbalanced Sita calls the police before breaking down completely.
Celestine sets out for the hospital in a blizzard one night when she is about to have her baby, and she crashes her Buick into Wallace Pfef’s fence. He takes her in and delivers the healthy baby according to Celestine’s instructions. In gratitude, she names the girl Wallacette Darlene, but Mary nicknames the child “Dot,” which sticks. Celestine brings the baby with her to the butcher shop...
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every day, and Mary becomes attached to the child. Over the years, Mary constantly meddles in her niece’s life, causing tension between Mary and Celestine. They squabble constantly.
Dot grows up a sturdy, strong-willed young woman, feisty, fearless, and angry. As Wallace Pfef says, “They loved Dot too much, and for that sin she made them miserable.” Yet Wallace loves her almost as much and acts as foolishly. He arranges an eighteenth birthday party for Dot that turns into a comic fiasco, but his crowning folly is to arrange a beet festival and rig the votes so that “Wallacette” is elected Beet Queen.
In a stunning finale, Dot discovers what Wallace has done. Before she can be crowned queen, she runs from the royal platform to an adjoining field, where a plane awaits the moment to take off and write “Queen Wallacette” across the sky. After a terrifying flight, the pilot returns Dot to the field, where she finds the grandstand deserted but for her mother, awaiting her and brimming with love.
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, game-player, and cocreator of the character who ties the main characters of the novel together, his daughter, Dot.
Dot is a strong, willful girl who is adored by her mother, a strong, mixed blood Chippewa woman named Celestine, her Aunt Mary, and Walter Pfef, a town leader and her father’s former lover. It is Dot, the Beet Queen in a contest fixed by Pfef, who brings together the web of characters who are otherwise loosely joined in fragile relationships. During the Beet Celebration in which she is to be crowned, her father returns. Pfef, Celestine, and Mary are also there, and Russell, Celestine’s paralyzed war-hero brother, is the centerpiece of a float honoring veterans. Mary’s vain cousin, Sita, is also there, although she is dead. When the day is over, the circle of family is complete. Poetic and graceful, The Beet Queen is widely recognized as one of Erdrich’s finest accomplishments.