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 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...
(The entire section is 1,182 words.)