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Critical Review by Russell Banks
SOURCE: "Border Country," in The Nation, Vol. 243, No. 14, November 1, 1986, pp. 460-63.
In the following review, Banks asserts that The Beet Queen, in its best sections, rivals the novels of Charles Dickens in socially conscious storytelling.
The Beet Queen is a Dickensian story, an angry comedy about abandonment and survival, pluck and luck (ambition and coincidence), common sense and pretension, and wise children and foolish adults. The book is structured in an almost classical manner. It opens with a sudden, unpredictable disaster that tosses an ordered world into terrible disarray. It then follows the paths of the half-dozen affected lives through three generations of small triumphs and reversals, long digressions and quick returns, until at last, in a ceremonial event that reunites and reorders the scattered elements of the tale into symmetrical, benign relations, it circles back to where it began, with everything the same only different—which in classical comedy, as in Dickens, is almost always the point. It's a form that in the hands of lesser artists than Louise Erdrich often affirms the status quo and lends itself to sentimentality. When, however, the story is played against a view of history in which decent folks are victimized not by their dopey and amusing gullibility but by economic and social forces too powerful to overcome with wile or guile, then the story has a divine rage, and one sees the radical power of the old form renewed.
The story of The Beet Queen is the story of the entwined fates of three generations of women whose men orbit around them like distant planets, necessary to the system as a whole but taking all their heat and most of their momentum from the women at the center. The book is divided into sixteen chapters narrated by the main characters and covering four decades in the lives of Mary Adare, one of the most memorable women in recent American fiction; her beleaguered mother, Adelaide; her narcissistic cousin, Sita Kozka; her lifelong friend, the half-Chippewa Celestine James; and Celestine's daughter, Dot. There are three men of note—Mary's older brother Karl, who fathers Dot; Dot's godfather, Wallace Pfef; and Celestine's half brother Russell Kashpaw, a shattered war hero. There is also Omar, a barnstorming stunt pilot, who, in the opening chapter, flies off with Adelaide, permitting her to abandon her three children on the fairgrounds below. This is the desperate, sad act that initiates the tangled actions of the book.
Several minor characters from the author's first novel, Love Medicine, pop up in The Beet Queen, and the setting is essentially the same as in that book—the flat, sparsely populated farm country where eastern North Dakota turns into western Minnesota, the literal and figurative border country where Chippewa tribal lands and lives grind against the land and lives of small-time white farmers, who in turn are swallowed by agribusiness. Erdrich sets her fiction squarely in the tense zone where races, cultures, languages, technologies and classes clash and overlap. Like most good fiction writers, she lives year-round in border country.
The Beet Queen is the second of a projected quartet of books dealing with the same cluster of families and events. Love Medicine, widely praised for its energy, inventiveness and compassion, was focused more directly on the lives of the Indians, and might for that reason seem more explicitly political than its successor. Yet it's evident from The Beet Queen that Erdrich has quite as much compassion for the white inhabitants of the small town of Argus, North Dakota, and environs as for the Chippewas. Employing exquisite irony, she dramatizes the empty inner life of a small-town booster by letting him speak for himself:
I'm Wallace Pfef. Chamber of commerce, Sugar Beet Promoters, Optimists, Knights of Columbus, park board, and other organizations too numerous to mention. In addition to supporting the B# Piano Club and managing the town swimming pool, I am the one who is bringing beets to the valley, beets that have yet to fail as a cash crop anywhere, beets that will make refined white sugar every bit as American as corn on the cob.
There has been resistance to my proposition, and why not? Agronomists value cyclical regularities. They are suspicious of innovation, and my business is courting change. To woo them, I've become the friend to agricultural co-ops and visited each area farmer individually. I've drunk sloe gin and schnapps and nameless basement brews. In town I've joined up with a vengeance, for I know that within the fraternal order lies power. Eagles, Moose, Kiwanis, Elk. I need to belong. I've gained a hundred ears, pumped hands, exchanged secret passwords with my brothers. I've told them how beets are much more than a simple crop. They are the perfect marriage between nature and technology. Like crude oil, the beet needs refining, and that means Refinery. That spells local industry. Everyone benefits.
There is a Bruegel-like realism to The Beet Queen—crisply articulated details on the surface of figures and landscapes arranged as deliberately as a bowl of fruit—that affirms the presence of moral intent and suggests the immanence of moral truth. One attends to the story the way one attends to a Gothic fairy tale, full of sudden, unexpected turns and gory surprises. Indeed, there are a few too many allusions to fairy tales in the book, making one a little more conscious of the act of reading than one needs to be. This is not a self-reflexive tale and we ought not be distracted from the business at hand.
Briefly, the story begins when the respectable, married, bourgeois lover of the poor but beautiful, and pregnant, Adelaide Adare dies, abandoning her and their two children, Karl and Mary, to abject poverty (it's 1932, the worst of the Depression). Fleeing Argus for Minneapolis, where things only get worse, Adelaide takes her children to the fairgrounds one day and, as if on impulse, flies off with a barnstormer in his plane. Eleven-year-old Mary says, "Our longing buried us. We sank down on her bed and cried, wrapped in her quilt, clutching each other. When that was done, however, I acquired a brain of ice." It's her brain of ice that saves her and gets her back to Argus, where she is taken in by her aunt and uncle and gradually, after much suffering, makes a life for herself. Her brother Karl, a more fragile soul than she, ends up as a traveling salesman forever on the move. When he takes stock of his life he sounds like one of Sam Shepard's alienated Westerners:
I sat there drinkless and coatless, my hat on, my keys dangling off a ring, until the sky turned orange and one by one the neon signs around the place flashed in bows and zippers. They were just moving figures. Nothing around me spoke. And as I sat there and the shadows gathered and the lizards scraped along the tiles, I made less and less sense, too, until I made none at all. I was part of the senseless landscape. A pulse, a strip, of light.
I give nothing, take nothing, mean nothing, hold nothing.
Years pass quickly in this book. The chapters are alternately narrated by each of the main characters in a voice that belongs simultaneously to the character and to an impersonal, overseeing consciousness, so that the voices seem to blend, as in a chorus, without ever losing their remarkable individuality. Erdrich has been able to give each of her characters their own tone, diction, pitch and rhythm, without letting go of her own. The effect is to deprive the book of a single hero, one character against whom all the others are defined, and to replace it with something like a community. Although this was also true of Love Medicine, it is more successful in The Beet Queen, where the multiple voices are orchestrated more elegantly and the structure of the narrative is more rigorously formal. A number of recent books with similar ambitions come to mind—Carolyn Chute's The Beans of Egypt, Maine, Joan Chase's During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, John Edgar Wideman's Damballah, for instance. It's as if these authors have chosen to eschew, on principle, a single central consciousness—an individualized sympathetic norm that, like the reader's consciousness, has found itself set in the center of a world gone wacky—and have instead attempted to make a family or a village or tribe, that is, a people, into the protagonist. They seem to be struggling to discover, or perhaps rediscover, a narrative form equal to a social and political vision radically different from the one we inherited from the modernists. Such books are proposing profound changes in the way we read fiction and, as a consequence, in how we see the world.
This section contains 1,457 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)