Back when I was a big re-reader, I used to discover an author, plough through all his or her works, and then begin the delicious re-reading process almost at once. Once I discovered the vast ocean of books-I-haven’t-read, however, I’ve had a tendency to read a novel, love it, and never return to that author again. One of my (unstated! aim low!) goals for this year was to try to read more by authors I’ve enjoyed over the past few years — deliberately putting a second work on my TBR as soon as the first is finished, for instance. Last year, Teresa and I read Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, and I enjoyed it so much that I immediately put her second novel, The Beet Queen, on my list.
Erdrich’s novels all, or almost all, take place on and around the fictional Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota. Love Medicine followed two Native American families on this reservation, leaping back and forth in time, using multiple narrators and points of view, making a complex tapestry of voices and linked stories. The Beet Queen, somewhat to my surprise, puts the Native American characters mostly in the background in favor of the nearby German-American community of the town of Argus. While Erdrich still uses the technique of multiple points of view, this novel is much more linear, both chronologically and in terms of narrative. It occurred to me that this might represent a more Western way of looking at the world — monochronic versus polychronic people.
This is a book about flight — fleeing, abandonment, but also sometimes literal flight — and learning to live with its consequences. When the three Adare children are abandoned by their mother, the oldest, Karl, never stops running: he becomes a traveling salesman and a cynic. He is always fantasizing himself elsewhere and different, escaping his situation and his nature as a gay man. Mary Adare goes to live with her aunt, uncle, and cousin Sita in Argus. Her tenacious hold on everything she touches — the butcher’s shop, her friend Celestine James, Celestine’s daughter Dot — is belied by her urgent interest in dreams, the occult, the psychic, the dead. Sita, the cousin, begins by an escape to the big town of Fargo, to be a department-store model, but she winds up more and more disturbed, escaping into the fastness of her own mind.
In a way, this book winds itself around people who are difficult to love. Erdrich shows us with sharp humor (this book is quite funny in parts) how much they want to be loved, and how terrible they are at it:
Parties were to Celestine an unpleasant task. I knew full well that she only gave them to try and help Dot make school friends, and that so far they’d done the opposite. That was mainly because of Mary, who had to be invited. Children were afraid of Mary’s yellow glare, her gravel-bed voice. She organized games with casual but gruesome threats, and the children complied like hostages with a gun trained on them. They played mechanically, with an anxious eye to her approval. Their laughs were false. But Mary didn’t notice this and took no hint from Celestine to stop her intimidation tactics.
Each character blunders, hurts others, makes mistakes, sometimes irreparable ones. They are lonely because everyone is lonely, because loneliness has to be taken into account like hunger or sleepiness. But each character also finds love, in some form, however unlikely or brief it may be. Early in the novel, Mary, a young schoolgirl at that point, slides down a metal slide coated with ice. At the bottom, unable to stop herself, she smashes into a thickly ice-coated puddle. The shape of the smash is a miracle: the nuns at the school see the face of Christ. (Mary herself sees her brother’s face, and Celestine can see no shape at all.) The Beet Queen is like that: lack of control, slipperiness, pain, chaos, and out of it, a miracle.
I adored Love Medicine, and while I wholeheartedly enjoyed The Beet Queen, I think it might have suffered slightly by comparison. Still, this was a wonderful novel, and I have several friends who like it best of Erdrich’s work. If you’re thinking of picking up one of her books, this would be a great place to start.