Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Beet Queen by Louise Erdrich: A review

It's only within the last year that I've begun reading the works of Louise Erdrich. Don't ask me why I waited so long. After all, The Beet Queen was published in 1986 and Love Medicine in 1984. She was always on my radar, but there are always so many books to read and so little time. Belatedly, I have entered Erdrich's world and I'm very glad to have finally made it here. 

Louise Erdrich writes about ordinary people. They are not superheroes, or even heroes (for the most part) in the common understanding of the word. They are people who struggle to play the hand that Fate has dealt them through nature and nurture (or lack of nurture) as best they can. They go through life never really understanding their own motives or what makes them tick. Mostly, they are too busy making a living to give much thought to that. Even so, these characters sometimes have flashes of insight that just about literally take the reader's breath away. 

In this, as in other of her books, Erdrich employs the method of the multiple perspective narration in telling the story. Whenever I read a book that uses this method, I am reminded of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying where it was used so effectively. The Beet Queen measures up well to that iconic work.

The core of this story concerns three children, Karl and Mary Adare and their newborn baby brother, who are abandoned by their mother, Adelaide, who was in despair following the death of her lover and the loss of his support which left the little family destitute. Adelaide flies off with the Great Omar, a barnstorming pilot. Her baby is immediately kidnapped by a couple who have just lost their own baby. They bring him up as their own. Karl and Mary hop a freight train to Argus, North Dakota, where they have an aunt. However, along the way, Karl takes another path and ends up being raised in an orphanage. Mary actually makes it to Argus and is taken in, cared for and raised by the family. The rest of the book revolves around the events in Argus and in Mary's life and the lives of those who touch her. But Karl, who becomes a salesman, and the baby brother, who grows up to be a priest, will inevitably be drawn back into the tale. 

The Beet Queen herself is Dot, a thoroughly unlovable character who is the progeny of Karl and of Mary's best friend, Celestine. Unlovable she may be but she is loved deeply by three of the book's characters, Celestine, Mary, and Wallace, friend of the two women and one-time lover of Karl. In fact, it is Wallace who delivers the baby Dot (whose real name is Wallacette Darlene) on a cold snowy night. Thereafter, his fate is forever tied to hers. 

Erdrich writes lyrically, one might even say lovingly, of her characters. These are not attractive people, but she makes us understand the ties of sympathy, jealousy and betrayal that bind all the members of the Adare family and their Argus neighbors together. She makes us see ourselves in them and care about their fates, even as we may be repelled by the darker aspects of their personalities. We see in their story the impatient flow of history over forty years on the harsh landscape of North Dakota and we experience the lives of the hard yet vulnerable people who are able to survive there. This wonderful book brings the rich panoply of personal tales together for our enjoyment. I'm so glad that I have finally entered Erdrich's world and come to know these people.

2 comments:

  1. Nice review. Just bought a copy from a secondhand bookstore and was wondering how it'd turn out. So far, I have found the voice of the narrative quite lyrical and beautiful. I should hurry back to finish reading it. Thank you.

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    1. Erdrich is a wonderful writer. "Lyrical" is a good way to describe her books. She's almost poetic at times. I've read several of her books now and every one is a winner. I'm glad you are enjoying this one.

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