The Beet Queen

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

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 rate, her subject here is townspeople, and the central figures are unrooted and non-Indian.

The story begins and ends with scenes of flight—literal flight, in airplanes. Like many other pieces of the plot, these two scenes are improbable enough to verge on the surreal, yet their matter-of-fact narration makes them seem almost ordinary, while their metaphoric or expressive content fuels the meaning of the tale. As the book opens, in 1932, Mary and Karl Adare’s mother, Adelaide, hops aboard a fairgrounds airplane with a seedy barnstormer billed as “The Great Omar, Aeronaught Extraordinaire,” and disappears from their lives. Mary and Karl are illegitimate; Adelaide’s married lover died in a freak accident which may have been suicide. The kids hop a freight headed for Argus, where their Aunt Fritzie and her husband, Pete, own a butcher shop. Karl, in a moment of panic, jumps back on the train; Mary is taken in by Aunt Fritzie (to the intense jealousy of Fritzie’s own daughter, Sita) and soon also steals Sita’s best friend, Celestine James. The remainder of the novel traces the intersection of their lives at scattered intervals over the next forty years.

Yet though the characters are connected, their stories are marked by disruption and disconnection. Parents desert or die; children are fostered by sisters or aunts (or craved by pseudoparents). Wallace Pfef—Chamber of Commerce president, Jaycee activist, the man who brings sugar-beet prosperity to Argus—provides an excuse for remaining single by displaying the picture of a “dead fiancée” he bought at a farm auction, but even so he fails to recognize his homosexuality until, well into adulthood, he encounters Karl in a hotel room. Because they have never seen their emotions reflected or mirrored by others, the book’s central figures are so needy that their fierce hungers and bizarre attempts to satisfy their cravings are immediately self-defeating.

At eleven, Mary regrets Karl’s loss primarily because she feels weak if she has no one to protect and look out for. In Aunt Fritzie’s house, she spies out ways to be useful: “I planned to be essential to them all, so depended upon that they could never send me off. I did this on purpose, because I soon found out that I had nothing else to offer.” Mary is an unattractive and unlovable character—yet Erdrich writes with such empathy that one cannot help caring about her. Mary’s grasping and conniving and her fierce selfishness are her only defense against a world which has given her nothing voluntarily.

Karl also remains fixed for life in a rather adolescent emotional pattern created by his early experience. Riding the rails at age fourteen and overwhelmed by yearnings that he does not analyze, Karl seeks closeness with another man, initiates a homosexual encounter, and declares his love. When it is rejected, Karl’s life is set; forty years later he is still a rover, a traveling salesman for one gimcrack after another, never again willing to expose his feelings.

Another motif in The Beet Queen has to do with women’s social roles. None is shown to be satisfactory. Adelaide abandons motherhood, leaving behind a nursing infant (as well as Karl and Mary) when she flies away. The beauty-queen ideal of...

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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical 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...

(The entire section is 480 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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 attitudes and realities. While the story’s time span may be perceived as too early for such (limited) community acceptance as this unusual group achieves—and of which author Leslie Marmon Silko has questioned the reality in the racist, homophobic North Dakota of the period—the reader falls under the spell of these unbeautiful people because of their fierce and abiding love and their ability to build and to keep unusual relationships.

That the book, along with Erdrich’s others, counters previous stereotypes about American Indian women is equally important. In canonical American literature, these women—like all others of color—have previously been depicted as sexually promiscuous, mistresses or concubines rather than wives, in contrast to their white sisters who, as tradition demands, have been idealized whenever possible. In The Beet Queen, Celestine, like Fleur Pillager both here and in Tracks, exhibits an independence and fortitude which make her not only a convincingly round character but also a totally admirable one.

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko attacked The Beet Queen in a 1986 review for failing to represent Native American history...

(The entire section is 325 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Erdrich often imbues action with symbolic and mythic overtones. Karl buries his head in the fragrant blossoms of a tree and then tears off...

(The entire section is 356 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Beet Queen is part of a tetralogy that includes Love Medicine, 1984, linked short stories; Tracks, 1988, novel; and...

(The entire section is 152 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 652 words.)