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.
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)