Wednesday, April 9, 2008
The Beet Queen by Louise Erdrich
The Beet Queen is a story about love. But not necessarily good love. It's about needing to be needed. It's about flawed characters loving each other in flawed ways.
The story begins with Mary and Karl Adare, whose mother quite literally got in a plane and flew away for good, reaching Argus, South Dakota by train during the Great Depression. Mary arrives with a fierce need for a survival and a willingness to make herself absolutely indispensible to her aunt and uncle to achieve that end. Within a few moments of their arriving in Argus, Karl is frightened by a barking dog and flees back to the train. From there, Mary and Karl's lives proceed in vastly different directions but ones that also bind them together for life. Mary inserts herself into life in Argus with an overbearing force that will define her entire life. Karl's life is marked by a rootlessness that sees him becoming a traveling salesman later in life.
Various characters play a significant part in the story including Mary's ambitious and eventually unhinged cousin Sita; Celestine, the best friend that Mary steals from Sita; and Wallace Pfef, a pillar of the Argus community who is unwittingly drawn into Mary, Celestine, and Karl's very unusual "family." What little that can be considered plot in this book revolves around Celestine and Karl's daughter, Wallacette nicknamed Dot, who was born on Wallace Pfef's couch during a fierce winter blizzard. Each of the characters tries misguidedly to give Dot the love that was missing from each of their lives - Mary by giving in to her every whim and being her confidant, Karl by sending oddball gifts from whereever he happens to be selling something at the time, and Wallace by attempting to win Dot's love through the staging of parties and events that should be the stuff of dreams but turn into the stuff of nightmares. Each character reveals his or her own selfishness through the love they shower on Dot eventually bequeathing her their own worst character traits and making Dot into a completely insufferable person. Erdrich reveals each one's desires, failings, and in essence, their humanity in their relations to Dot. While these characters aren't all that lovable, it's not difficult to see how grounded in reality they are.
For as I am standing there I look closer into the grandstand and see that there is someone waiting. It is my mother, and all at once I cannot stop seeing her. Her skin is rough. Her whole face seems magnetized, like ore. Her deep brown eyes are circled with dark skin, but full of eagerness. In her eyes I see the force of her love. It is bulky and hard to carry, like a package that keeps untying. It is like this dress that no excuse accounts for. It is embarrassing. I walk to her, drawn by her, unable to help myself.
This book is primarily about its characters. If you're looking for a quick moving plot or even a linear one, this book is not for you. The book is more of a "slice" of these characters lives, opening windows to the most vital parts. The bouncing between narrators and events gives the feeling of interconnected short stories instead of an entire cohesive novel. The individual stories are absorbing, but I couldn't help feeling that I was missing something. I kept waiting for everything to come together in the end, for some of the several narrative threads to resolve themselves but found myself dissatisfied. I enjoyed the writing but by the end had a feeling like that of going to the store, coming back with a lot of stuff, but not what I'd gone for in the first place. The writing is captivating. The characters come to life. The theme is valid. In the end, though, it still feels like there's something missing.