The Beet Queen
by Louise Erdrich
Henry Holt, 338 pp., $16.95
Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine was a commanding first book of fiction, but not necessarily the announcement of a major novelist’s arrival. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1984, the book consists of fourteen short stories about life on and around a North Dakota reservation in the decades since 1934. Two Chippewa families supply virtually all of the central figures in the stories, which—after a long opening piece set in 1981—are laid out in firmly labeled chronological order. Recurring characters, repeated themes, and entangled bloodlines offer bridges from one tale to the next. Nonetheless, the traditional novelistic devices—narrative shape, momentum, suspense—play almost no part in the book’s modest cumulative effect. Instead, the stories in Love Medicine remain stubborn little islands of image-charged prose, often painfully beautiful (and occasionally comic) as they juxtapose the harsh specifics of these Native American lives with the emotional strength, even grandeur, derived from family bonds and mystical beliefs. The parade of oddly neutral first-person narrators, the often confusing crowd of interrelated characters, the seemingly haphazard shifting of close-ups—all these suggest documentary, cinéma vérité, rather than full-length fiction. In fact, Erdrich’s first “novel” seems deliberate, faux naif perhaps, in its asymmetrical patchworking, almost as if a structure would be out of place in such a stark amalgam of poetry and sociology.
As The Beet Queen makes clear, however, Erdrich has nothing against—and hardly a thing to learn about—large-scale storytelling. Not since Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer has the first page of a novel so authoritatively invited this reader into a fictional world that’s about to expand naturally and easily, in all directions. Two quasi orphans, eleven-year-old Mary Adare and her older brother Karl, come to Argus, North Dakota, on a cold spring morning in 1932, arriving together as boxcar stowaways on a freight train; within six short paragraphs, the siblings, chased by a large dog, will be running in opposite directions—Karl back to the departing boxcar, Mary to a new life in Argus with Aunt Fritzie Kozka and Cousin Sita. Immediately, then, a narrative arc, taut with Dickensian possibilities, takes shape, along with the sense of an unabashedly conscious craftsman at work.
Just as quickly, Erdrich also lets us know that her embrace of old-fashioned narrative in no way involves a retreat from the stylistic and tonal complexity that distinguished Love Medicine. There’s that riskily lyrical imagery, too, in the near-melodramatic opening sequence—when Karl’s dreamy fascination with an Argus tree in blossom leads him fatefully astray: “His cheeks went pink, he stretched his arms out like a sleepwalker, and in one long transfixed motion he floated to the tree and buried his face in the white petals.” Here, however, and throughout The Beet Queen, the poetry never stalls the developing action, or becomes an end in itself, as it sometimes does in Love Medicine. And if the contrast between hard facts and sweet music can …