The Beet Queen Additional Summary

Louise Erdrich


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Eleven-year-old Mary Adare and her brother, Karl, who is fourteen years old, are left penniless with their mother, Adelaide, after her married lover dies. It is 1932, and many people are suffering through the Great Depression. Adelaide tries to keep the family together by pawning her few bits of jewelry, but this fails to bring in enough money. In desperation, she leaves Mary, Karl, and her newborn baby to fend for themselves, leaving them for stunt pilot Omar. Adelaide and Omar fly off in his barnstorming plane, never to return. The children are left to care for the baby. When things get even more desperate, Mary and Karl give their unnamed baby brother to the Millers, Catherine and Martin.

Mary and Karl hop a freight car for Argus, where their aunt, Fritzie Adare Kozka, runs a butcher shop. Mary arrives safely with a little box containing her mother’s garnet necklace, but Karl, after arriving with Mary in Argus, jumps back on the train. Fritzie and her husband take Mary in, give her a bed in their daughter Sita’s room, and give her some of Sita’s old clothes, sparking a lifelong jealousy in Sita.

Mary discovers that the necklace box contains only a pawn ticket. She puts this disappointment behind her and busies herself with the butcher shop and with school. She becomes friends with Celestine James, once Sita’s closest friend. Celestine is more like Mary—competent and practical—than like Sita—who has romantic notions about herself. When Fritzie shows Mary a postcard from her mother in Florida, Mary sends the card back to her mother, with a note that her (her mother’s) three children have died.

Mary had made a new life in Argus after traveling there by train with Karl. Her brother, however, broke both legs after jumping again from the train. Fleur Pillager, a Chippewa woman, helped him to heal. After recovering, Karl begins to fantasize about rescuing his mother from Omar, who is now married to her. Eventually, Karl enters a Catholic orphanage in Minneapolis and plans to become a priest. His vocation is mostly self-preservation, however, and he leaves the seminary in early adulthood, returning just long enough to recognize a young seminarian as his lost brother—the abandoned baby, now known as Jude Miller.

It is now 1941, and Mary is running the butcher shop for her aunt, whose health is failing. Mary, who knows that she is not attractive, makes a play for Celestine’s half brother Russell, who bluntly resists her advances. Fritzie and her husband retire to Arizona, and Sita moves to Fargo, North Dakota, to model for a local department store. There, Sita puts most of her energies into preserving her looks and angling for an advantageous marriage. She receives a forwarded letter from Jude’s adopted mother that tells the story of how she raised him and announces his ordination in Minneapolis. Sita goes to the ceremony and later redeems Adelaide’s ancient pawn ticket for the old garnet...

(The entire section is 1208 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In the opening episode of “The Beet Queen” (a six-paragraph prologue that displays the author’s flair for the dramatic), Mary, a girl of eleven, and her fourteen-year-old brother Karl leap from a boxcar in the sugar beet valley of fictional Argus, North Dakota, and head for the home of their Aunt Fritzie, who, with her husband Pete, runs a reasonably successful butcher shop. As they walk through the streets, a fierce dog frightens them. Mary runs toward the butcher shop and Karl runs back to the boxcar in a scene reminiscent of the flight of Mendel and Isaac from Ginzburg in Bernard Malamud’s short story “Idiots First.” However, in “The Beet Queen,” it is not Death pursuing the youngsters; it is Life.

Following this prologue, recounted by a third-person narrator, the rest of the story is told in the first-person voice of the little girl, Mary. She recounts the events that led to this fateful train ride, as well as her experience following it, beginning her story with the grain-loading accident that killed her father and the sad relocation of his pregnant widow and two small children to the Cities. There, they are reduced to penury and the new baby brother is born. “We should let it die,” she recalls her mother telling her, “I won’t have any milk. I’m too thin.” Some weeks later, Mary recounts, with an eviction notice in hand they stumble on a country fair called “The Orphan’s Picnic,” where all three children are...

(The entire section is 593 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In The Beet Queen, Erdrich shifts her main focus from the American Indian to the European immigrant side of her background, creating in impressive detail the fictional town of Argus, modeled on Wahpeton, where she grew up, but located closer to the Chippewa reservation. The novel captures both the flat surfaces of life in small-town North Dakota and the wild incidents and strange passions that seem all the more startling, comic, and heartrending for their appearing in such a mundane environment.

As in Love Medicine, The Beet Queen features first-person and third-person-limited narration to present characters’ diverse points of view. In this novel, however, Erdrich focuses more closely on a...

(The entire section is 849 words.)