When Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine appeared in 1984, it was greeted with enthusiastic, almost hyperbolic, critical praise and showered with half a dozen awards, including the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her second novel, The Beet Queen, has had a milder reception, not because it’s any less good; on the contrary, it’s more polished, more securely structured than Love Medicine. But the second book is very similar to the first. Erdrich’s strength is not stylistic variety but a consistent, unique voice, attentive to the sounds and suggestions of words. Her sentences move lyrically; they’re carefully crafted and often breathtaking. When a thin woman dies and her friends struggle with her deadweight, it’s “as if death had entered and filled the marrows of her bones with sand.” A flowering tree in the night is “a scratch of light against the gray of everything else, tossed in a film of blossoms.”
Erdrich’s 1984 book of poetry, Jacklight, reveals the sources of her prose style, as well as the thematic origins of her novels. One section of Jacklight is about the same kind of butcher shop where much of The Beet Queen takes place. One poem is titled “A Love Medicine.” Like her other work, many of the poems are monologues: people telling stories, remembering, painting images that flicker with color and light. Aside from the line breaks, there isn’t much difference between one of the poems and a paragraph from one of the novels. Here is part of a poem, “The Lefavor Girls”:
We lay in the grass,
the bees drinking in tongues,
and already the brittle hum of the locust
in the red wheat, growing.
And here is a paragraph from The Beet Queen:
“All around him a night music opened. Crickets sawed. The new wheat rustled. Dreaming birds that nested in the culverts and low windbreaks let out small sharp cries. Wallace slid low in the seat and breathed the mild sweet wind. The steering wheel curved like a smooth bone where he rested his fingers. Over him, the whole moonless sky was spread with planets and stars.”
Erdrich makes a better poetic novelist than prosaic poet because each component of her novels succeeds on its own and links perfectly to the others, forming stronger, larger bonds. If you look at The Beet Queen like a scientist looks at something through a microscope, with a series of successively magnifying lenses, you see first the brilliant pitches of her sentences and images. These form chapters, which are almost self-contained short stories (most, from both novels, were first published separately in magazines like Paris Review and Atlantic Monthly; one was actually chosen for The Best American Short Stories of 1983). But through these stories, characters develop, grow old, submerge, and reemerge; there are balanced symmetries, and time spreads out to the future and to the past. The Beet Queen doesn’t read like scattered segments, but like a complete novel.
A few characters who play small parts in Love Medicine appear in The Beet Queen, binding the two novels together. Apparently they form the first half of an intended quartet, so we will see if Erdrich can sustain the power and solid shape of her novels in an even larger form, the boxed set.
Love Medicine traced the histories of two Native American families living in North Dakota. The compassion and insight with which Erdrich wrote about a group of Chippewa earned her the title of “Native American writer” (she is part Chippewa), but The Beet Queen is only marginally about Native Americans. The story begins with a brother and sister, Karl and Mary Adare, who have been abandoned by their mother (she flew off suddenly with an aviator at a county fair) and are traveling by boxcar to seek out their mother’s sister in Argus, North Dakota. They also have a baby brother, who was taken away from them at the fairgrounds.
Upon their arrival in town, Karl stops to bury his face in the petals of a blossoming tree. An Argus citizen unleashes her dog on him. “Then he yelled ‘Run!’ and Mary ran cast, toward Aunt Fritzie. But Karl ran back to the boxcar and the train.” Karl and Mary’s separation forms the framework for the novel. Karl is older, but fragile; Mary is more practical. Looking back, she says: “It was not that with Karl gone I had no one to protect me, but just the opposite. With no one to protect and look out for, I was weak. . . . [Karl] suffered from fevers that kept him in a stuporous dream state and was sensitive to loud sounds, harsh lights. My mother called him delicate, but I was the opposite.” The Beet Queen proceeds through leaps in time, from 1932 to 1941 to 1952 and onwards, in the voices of Mary, Karl, their cousin Sita, and others.
Since different characters will report a single story from their different points of view, also describing each other, the reader pieces together composite pictures of events, memories, and people, filling out the whole story through overlapping monologues. Mary arrives in her aunt and uncle’s butcher shop and immediately antagonizes the haughty, narcissistic Sita. Moving into Sita’s room and wearing her clothes, Mary says: “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.” In the next chapter, in Sita’s voice: “She had half of mine by then, quite a wardrobe, and all the time it was increasing as my mother got more excited about dressing the poor orphan. But Mary wasn’t really an orphan, although she played on that for sympathy.”
While Mary works in the butcher shop, Karl turns into a sleazy, shiftless opportunist, picking up odd jobs, surfacing at a farmers’ convention in Minneapolis. There he meets and seduces a gentle businessman from Argus, Wallace Pfef. Wallace, it later turns out, lives next door to Mary’s best friend, Celestine. Slowly the loose threads of the novel are woven together in strange, illuminating ways. Through seemingly random events, through shifting voices, the characters collide and then retreat for decades at a time. After 20 years Karl comes to the butcher shop in Argus; Mary is out, but Celestine, whom he has never met, is there. When the two spontaneously make love in the back of the shop, in Celestine’s words, the episode is bizarre, savage, awkward, and almost comic. Afterwards: “I heave him over so he sprawls in the dark, away from me so I can breathe. Then we smooth our clothing and hair back so carefully in the dark, that when we finally turn the light on and blink at the place where we find ourselves, it is as though nothing has happened. We are standing up, looking anyplace but at each other.”
Immediately Karl opens a suitcase. Now he is a door-to-door salesman, selling knives. “‘You can slice,’ he begins, ‘through wood, even plaster with our serrated edge. Or . . .’ he produces a pale dinner roll from his pocket, “the softest bread.'” Still later, when Celestine is about to have Karl’s baby, a blizzard prevents her from driving to the hospital. She stumbles next door, and it’s Wallace who acts as midwife.
Erdrich’s honest prose makes us forget that this scenario is weird, outrageous, and perverse. Erdrich uncovers the subtle moments of magic in ordinary lives, moments delicate and muted like moss on the underside of a stone. Each of her characters, from diabolical Karl to the aging, frustrated, spiteful Sita, is fully rounded and multidimensional, thoroughly real. Mary’s odd blend of compulsive practicality and fascination with the occult seems right, as do her mystic visions: she tells Sita that plants die painful deaths, that they “went into shock when pulled up by their roots, and even uttered something indescribable, like panic, a drawn-out vowel that only registered on special instruments.”
What Erdrich doesn’t do is offer sentimental salves or contrive tidy connecting links. Any novel that begins with the breakup of a family, and that follows the separate progress of the family members over the years, will keep its readers waiting anxiously for the big reunion scene, full of hugging and crying and happiness. We anticipate that moment for Karl and Mary, but Erdrich, foiling our expectations, throws us a very lean bone. Celestine is recounting how Karl has moved in with her; casually, referring to Mary, she drops the small news: “Karl has gone to her only once for dinner. It was supposed to be their grand reunion, but it fell flat. They blamed each other. They argued. Mary hit him with a can of oysters.”
Anything more would somehow seem gratuitous. Mary and Karl are not the kind of people who have happy reunions. They are both bitter and resentful; they miss each other in a deep, unconscious way, but as adults they don’t like each other. As for the mother, Mary has written her a postcard, forging the aunt’s handwriting, informing her that her children have starved to death. Maybe in a future book the mother will be reunited with her children, but Erdrich doesn’t allow us that satisfaction in this one.
Karl and Mary suffer early losses and we feel their wounds in everything they do and think. Karl hardens, grows malevolent and manipulative, vanishes when he’s wanted and shows up again when he’s not. In drawing Karl and Mary, Erdrich resists stating the obvious, but neither is she too coy or oblique with their portraits. By the time the novel reaches 1972, and Celestine has long since kicked Karl out of the house, and he’s only once seen his daughter Dot, and he’s drifting from state to state, his voice sounds acutely tragic. We understand Karl when he says:
“Most men get to my age and suddenly they’re dissatisfied with all that they’ve accumulated behind them. Not me. I wanted everything I’d left behind. I wanted the cars repossessed after fifteen payments, the customers’ houses into which I never got past the doormat, the ones I did get past, their rooms and rich smells of wax and burned food. I wanted the food itself, burned or not, and the women who had left it in the oven too long. I wanted their husbands. I wanted the men in blind alleys, truck beds, the men who had someone else or, like Wallace Pfef, never anyone before. I wanted the whole world of people who belonged to each other and owned things and cooked food and remembered old songs. . . I give nothing, take nothing, mean nothing, hold nothing.”
Not only is this passage filled with Erdrich’s poetic graces — the rhythms, the sounds, the cadences — but it unerringly reveals something about the aging Karl, something risky and passionate. Erdrich doesn’t follow any contemporary American literary trends; she has a style of her own. She tackles the topics of myth and magic that have seemed, at times, taboo in United State fiction; dreams and inexplicable, strange events wind through The Beet Queen and carry as much weight as things that “really happen.” The equality of empirical evidence and hallucination, myth and reality, is as comfortable for Erdrich as it is for Latin American writers like Marquez and Borges. As Mary and Celestine grow older, their visions twist, distort, verge on the surreal.
“Mary tries to get her imagination to mend the holes in her understanding,” says Celestine, who has a dream that Sita is sick and is calling for her. They haven’t seen each other for many years. She tells Mary about the dream, and worries that Sita won’t want to see them. “It was her that asked you,” replies Mary. “Yes,” says Celestine, “but of course she asked in ‘my dream.” “There’s no difference,” says Mary.
To Erdrich, writing, there is also no difference. She does not signal us that Sita is hallucinating when she describes Karl, sitting in a lawn chair in her garden, sinking into the earth. We don’t doubt Mary’s veracity when, as a young girl, she’s woken up by Sita and says, “I thought at first that she had left the curtains open, but the light in the room was coming from me, or from my hands, to be entirely exact. They glowed with a dead blue radiance.” There is no explanation for either of these occurrences. Erdrich draws no literary line across which we should suspend our disbelief. Her subject is the human psyche, with all its accompanying enigmas and unplumbed depths.
The only not-so-successful section of the book is the last one, in which Wallace, always amiable and eager to please, stages a big festival in Argus, all for the sole purpose of cheering up the unattractive, friendless teenage Dot: he will rig a contest that will crown her Beet Queen (Wallace has introduced sugar beets to Argus, and made them a successful crop). By trying too eagerly to build up a big climactic ending, Erdrich actually diminishes the potency of this passage. She describes the parade, the game booths, the food, the colorful grandstand, and the raucous crowds sweltering in the blazing drought heat. These cinematic passages remind me of the festival scenes in movies like Children of Paradise and Black Orpheus, which do have the effect that Erdrich is trying to achieve: they catch you up in an atmosphere of motion and noise and color.
But here these scenes get in the way. And for once, the coincidence is a little contrived: not only do Mary, Celestine, Wallace, and Dot converge at the festival, with Karl driving up from Texas, but Mary and Karl’s long-lost brother Jude just happens to arrive in town that day, and while he sits in the same row as his sister in the bandstand, they never connect.
If we think of Erdrich the woman, member of a Chippewa tribe, mother of five children, native of North Dakota, we can trace the convictions behind her Dakota landscapes, her midwestern dialogue, her powerful detailing of childbirth, and her loving, almost protective descriptions of babies, as well as the bare honesty in her depictions of mother-daughter relationships. The way she climbs inside the minds of the Chippewa on a reservation, exploring the thoughts of displaced people in extended monologues, is reminiscent of Peter Matthiessen in At Play in the Fields of the Lord. Her scope is small so far, her style is focused, but even if all her books from here on sound exactly the same, the tenderness, imagination, and strong affection with which she writes makes Erdrich one of our most valuable new novelists.
The Beet Queen by Louise Erdrich, Henry Holt, $16.95.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.