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Foundling Fiction

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 make Love Medicine seem self-consciously literary (a “poet’s novel,” for better or worse), the use of heightened language remains unobtrusive in The Beet Queen, generating a fine subliminal tension—just one of the balancing acts that transform a doleful scenario into an airy, even jaunty, novel.

In outline the five-decade saga of Mary and Karl Adare is a dreary litany of abandonment and loss, of emotional stunting and atrophy. The separation from Karl, we soon learn, is only the most recent isolating trauma to savage Mary’s childhood: her father (whom she barely knew) has died; her flighty, penniless mother Adelaide has decamped with a dashing aviator; her baby brother has been kidnapped by a well-intentioned, childless couple. Having “lost trust in the past,” young Mary understandably cuts herself off from the memory figures who appear in her dreams. (“They tried to reach through air and earth. They tried to tell me there was rhyme and reason. But I put my hands over my ears.”) Blunt, bitter, ordinary-looking, she learns to thrive on solitude, taking over her uncle and aunt’s butcher shop, while reliving the pattern of childhood anguish—jealousy, loss, withdrawal—in one arid, triangular relationship after another.

Meanwhile, the same history of rejection and isolation forces weaker, prettier Karl into an earthier but equally hollow pathological design: terrified of genuine contact, alienated from “the whole world of people who belonged to each other,” he becomes an icy, casual, bisexual seducer, reentering Mary’s life only to impregnate her best friend (and butchershop partner) Celestine James, to father and desert yet another frustrated, needy Adare.

For all the major characters in The Beet Queen, in fact, love is mostly dangerous or embarrassing, “bulky and hard to carry, like a package that keeps untying.” Mary’s vain, ambitious cousin Sita goes mad; both Celestine and her neighbor Wallace Pfef (the bachelor-entrepreneur who brings a temporary beet boom to Argus) loathe the selves they become when passion for elusive Karl, the perennial traveling salesman and flimflam man, overwhelms them. And Karl’s unattractive daughter Dot, ignored by her absent father and most of Argus, only feels trapped by the disproportionate outpourings of possessive love from a mother (Celestine), an aunt (Mary), and a sublimating “uncle” (Wallace) in eternal competition for her allegiance. “There is a thread beginning with my grandmother Adelaide and traveling through my father and arriving at me. That thread is flight.”

Played as melodrama, such an unrelievedly calamitous family saga would probably collapse into bathos. A naturalistic approach might easily have reduced the dispossessed, neurotic Adares to chapters of clinical case history. Unlike Love Medicine, however, which draws much of its intensity from the shared culture of a Native American community, The Beet Queen leapfrogs around and beyond any sociological pigeonholes. Celestine James is part Chippewa, with a wary, battered half brother who eventually retreats to the reservation; but issues of Native American tradition, identity, and assimilation contribute only the quietest grace notes to Celestine’s involvements with Adares and Kozkas and Pfefs, the children of Northern European immigrants. Nor, despite the precise evocations of snowbound childbirth and convent schoolrooms and bleak parades, is this a “midwestern” novel in any limiting sense. Erdrich’s Argus, North Dakota, is real enough to ground the social comedy that she so consistently, surprisingly, pulls up from those unpromising, grim materials; yet it’s also enough of a nowhere place to melt away obligingly whenever The Beet Queen turns operatic, mysterious, or fablelike.

Erdrich is hardly unique, of course, in using comedy to circumvent sentimentality, playing against the pathos of derailed lives. Few writers, however, have managed to maintain so much respect and compassion for a cast of frail souls while making the farcical most of their eccentricities. Mary Adare’s cramped spirit may transform her into a monstrous, hilariously meddlesome aunt—misguidedly assaulting Dot’s grade-school teacher, or storm-trooping the fun out of a kiddie birthday party until the other adults feel compelled to slip her a Mickey Finn. But none of her misadventures reduces Mary to a mere figure of fun, viewed under glass or at a distance; she is always capable of unexpectedly grabbing a more heroic role or exposing a “sudden blue pang” of vulnerability—especially since, like the other five principal characters here, she is given several opportunities to address us directly. (The plain, largely undifferentiated narrative voices in Love Medicine serve no apparent purpose in the book’s overall scheme; in The Beet Queen that same grave neutrality seems to work as a buffer against caricature.) Similarly, a single scene—Wallace Pfef, jealously eavesdropping on an erotically charged moment between Karl and Celestine, is attacked by mosquitoes—registers simultaneously as slapstick and empathic psychodrama. And in a single outrageous utterance—“Even thinking about her strange Jell-O makes me furious,” says Celestine of her irritating soul mate Mary—absurd domestic satire and oddball Greek tragedy can cheerfully coexist.

This tragicomic complexity—the ability to project each of six narrator-protagonists as a sad case, a buffoon, and a hero all at once—wouldn’t be possible without the plain yet poetic prose that unobtrusively steadies and suspends The Beet Queen. (Less subtly modulated attempts at tragicomedy—like those of John Irving—create a mawkish clash of tones instead of a consistently unsettling blend.) Even more crucial to the novel’s buoyancy—and even more delicate—is the playful balance between sincerity and artifice in Erdrich’s orchestration of an elaborate, often far-fetched plot. While verisimilitude and sympathy remain on some level intact, the reader is gently, frequently reminded that the story he has entered is also a conscious creation: most specifically, a wry set of variations on the “foundling fiction” genre of Fielding and Dickens.

Those orphaned, isolated Adare children, for instance, would, by convention, be expected eventually to find their way to dramatic reunions, to the familial recognitions that unleash joy and terror on Oliver Twist or Ralph Nickleby. Erdrich teasingly encourages these expectations, with missed connections, letters fatefully mislaid, and highlighted clues—including the kidnapped brother’s distinctive baby clothes, carefully saved by his foster mother. When Mary and Karl meet again, however, twenty years after their childhood separation, it’s a nonevent, worthy of no more than a brief second-hand report from Celestine. (“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.”) A momentary chance encounter between Karl and his long-lost little brother, circa 1948, is even more sourly anticlimactic: “Karl decided that he disliked his brother as intensely now as he had long ago.” So the youngest Adare sibling, now a fledgling priest, never learns his real identity—not even when, twenty-five years later, he makes an outlandishly coincidental appearance in the novel’s final set piece, which blatantly arranges the intersection of (among other things) the redemptive return of wastrel Karl, the black-comic demise of Cousin Sita, and the rigged election of sullen Dot Adare as the 1972 Beet Queen of Argus, North Dakota.

Unlike the comparable stratagems of such writers as Joyce Carol Oates and Mark Helprin, Erdrich’s departures from conventional realism—stylized language,constant shiftings of tone and viewpoint, elements of parody and knowing artifice that verge on “metafiction”—don’t undermine the story’s forward momentum and emotional conviction. Carried along by the Adares’ thorny vitality and their unpredictable maneuvers within confining circumstances, we barely notice the author’s manipulations, hardly realize how they lend a shimmer to otherwise earthbound events. This is a rare second novel, one that makes it seem as if the first, impressive as it was, promised too little, not too much.

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