Louise Erdrich’s The Beet Queen (1985)

The longer the books in the Love Medicine cycle, the harder it is to recall that Louise Erdrich began with short fiction, stories which linked, interconnected, taking their own time to draw in their circles before spiralling outward once more.

Tracks and Four Souls were slim volumes, but readers of Love Medicine and The Beet Queen observe the heft and expect to settle; they crave the narrative constancy which is more universally satisfying (as with The Round House) and they be discontent.

Despite my own familiarity with short fiction, I was unsettled by this as well. It took me a few chapters – a few stories – to reorient myself, to re-content myself with the tighter turn of attach-and-release required with The Beet Queen.

Beginning in 1932 and ending in 1972, readers spend most of their time with Mary Adare, one of three siblings left behind when their mother opted to pursue a romance rather than raise her children.

The expanse in time is balanced by a focussed geographical setting and a tight cast of characters, whose broader alliances are outlined, but readers do not need to be familiar with the families which figure in the other books to appreciate Mary’s story.

(Although it is deeply satisfying to understand the significance of a pointed look which is described but unexplained – assumed to reflect some broader element of character, if one hasn’t read the other novels in the sequence – though understood to connect with an experience returning readers can recall and comprehend.)

First – child, then – grown, Mary is an observant and complicated character, whose relationships are as fragmented and difficult as one would guess given her history of abandonment and separation (it takes time for readers to connect the dots between her and other family members, as the years pass).

Family is both essential and irrelevant in these stories: connections sometimes confine and sometimes define, but other times disappoint or, even, evaporate, in the face of other vital experiences and exposures.

The next morning, when I tell him to leave again, he proposes marriage. But this time I have a threat to make.
“I’m calling the state asylum,” I say. “You’re berserk.”
He leans over and spins his finger around his ear.
“Commit me then,” he says. “I’m crazy with love.”
Something in this all has made me realize that Karl has read as many books as I, and that his fantasies have always stopped before the woman came home worn out from cutting beef into steaks with an electric saw.

The Beet Queen is the Erdrich novel which took me the longest time – several weeks – to read (so far) but it might also be my favourite; certainly there are some scenes in there which will take some time to fade in my memory.

Love

Hover to reveal a quote from Four Souls

“We are all imperfect in our love for one another.”
— Louise Erdrich

Land

Hover to reveal a quote from Tracks

“Land is the only thing that lasts life to life.”
— Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich Books Yet To Read in 2018

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001)*
The Bingo Palace (1994)*

Tales of Burning Love (1997)
The Antelope Wife (1998)
The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003)
The Painted Drum (2005)
The Plague of Doves (2008)
Shadow Tag (2010)
The Round House (2012, Currently Reading)
LaRose (2016)

*Rereads

Thoughts on Erdrich?

2018-01-17T15:28:33+00:00

12 Comments

  1. Niranjana February 16, 2018 at 2:30 pm - Reply

    Omigosh. I read this when I was in middle school back in the 80s and didn’t understand a thing; I had zero context and insufficient life experience. But I can still remember lines from it…the prose was stunning.
    I have to re-read this now. Thank you!

  2. Naomi February 16, 2018 at 2:24 pm - Reply

    Is this a novel, or interconnected stories forming a novel? I think the latter appeals to me even more.

    Kind of irrelevant, but aren’t beets so pretty? Especially all the different varieties cut up and mixed together?

  3. Rebecca Foster February 9, 2018 at 5:52 am - Reply

    I got off to a poor start with Erdrich last year: I made it 1/3 of the way through Future Home of the Living God and gave up. I’m not a big fan of dystopian fiction in general, and critical opinion agreed that it was a rare misstep from her. So what I should try next to exorcise the experience?

    • Buried In Print February 9, 2018 at 8:12 am - Reply

      I’m curious why you were interested in trying it if you’re not a dystopian kind of gal to start with? Are there some books in the genre which you enjoy, so you thought there was the potential of a match? There was a copy of it on the “New” shelf this week when I went to pick up my holds and, in a rare moment of restraint, I left it there, because I am already struggling to finish this Perec book before the duedate. I’m going to think about which one might redirect you into her stuff; I’ll check my notes first.

      • Rebecca Foster February 9, 2018 at 9:32 am - Reply

        Having an e-ARC of her new book seemed like a good opportunity to try Erdrich for the first time, and dystopian stuff is so zeitgeisty you can’t really avoid it nowadays. I have loved some books with dystopian elements, e.g. Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins and The Shore by Sara Taylor, but as with a lot of sci fi, sometimes speculative stuff just feels plain silly to me. I enjoyed the early scenes of Cedar meeting her biological Native American family, so I may well like Erdrich’s more usual fare.

        • Buried In Print February 9, 2018 at 10:08 am - Reply

          If you enjoyed her work with that kind of scene, I think you might like The Last Report on the Miracles of Little No Horse. Actually I will be rereading it next (chronologically story-wise, not in publication order), maybe next month, so I will see if I still enjoy it as much myself. (I hope so!) As for her latest work, I am reminded of a quote that recently popped up in my David Mitchell (The Bone Clocks): “In publishing it’s easier to change your body than it is to switch genre.” Needless to say, some of his characters are body-hopping, but perhaps he was wishing he could do so too, as he’s certainly been criticized heavily for including some speculative stuff in his literary fiction. Are you still planning to try Cloud Atlas this year as well? Or is it just a “someday” thing, as so many of the books on my TBR are?

          • Rebecca Foster February 9, 2018 at 10:16 am - Reply

            Well, in that I do actually have a copy of Cloud Atlas on the shelf, it could be imminent. Or maybe not! I’m sure you know how that goes. I just need the impetus to pick it up.

            • Buried In Print February 9, 2018 at 10:45 am

              Oh, do I ever. And it’ll be magical and ridiculous, that “thing” that finally makes it happen.

  4. Laila@BigReadingLife February 8, 2018 at 5:04 pm - Reply

    I’ve decided to read my first Erdrich ever as part of joining the Classics Club! Love Medicine. (But who knows when I’ll get to it?)

    • Buried In Print February 9, 2018 at 8:08 am - Reply

      lthough there are reasons to consider Love Medicine a novel, with all the pieces formaing a whole in the end, I think it feels a lot like a story collection when you’re reading. Maybe that would make an interesting follow-up to your Alexie stories? Ah, but I know, you’re like me, it’s going to be when you’re in the mood for it! 🙂

  5. annelogan17 February 8, 2018 at 12:30 pm - Reply

    I’ve never read any Louise Erdrich, although I really do mean to because I hear such great things about her. I never realized her books were connected like that either, very cool! That’s got to be a complicated thing to take on as a writer…

    • Buried In Print February 8, 2018 at 1:51 pm - Reply

      When I started reading her, I didn’t know that either. It wasn’t until her collection of stories came out about ten years ago that I saw some connections and investigated. I like the stories, but, really, it’s their interconnectedness and the complexity that arises from that which keeps me reading.

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