2016 could have easily been my year of Louise Erdrich. I went from being suspect of her to reading as much of her stuff as I could stomach to sitting up the morning of the Nobel announcement having convinced myself she was about to win. I hope and think some day she will. She really is that good. In this previous year, I have read seven of her novels and look to read the remaining seven this year. For whatever reason, for this time in my life, I have clicked with her writing. Erdrich’s writing is direct, competent, and complex. It focuses more so on form and effect than on flourish, so it would be right, then, to link her in some ways to Faulkner and Morrison. When I say form instead of flourish, I mean that there is depth and richness to her writing, complexity does come at times in complicated sentence structures, and she’s putting careful touches on each clause. But there is also an economy to her style. It almost never feels like there’s an extra word on the page. There’s real genius without dipping too much into cleverness. She’s putting on a clinic, not a show.
One of the Erdrich’s common ideas is an understanding of blended families. Families are often made up of blood relatives, non-blood associations, adoptees, ghosts/spectres, and people who came around one day and never left, as well as absentee relations. This novel tells of one such family, created in part by blood, in part by a closeness/obsession, and in part by a sense of stability created outside of a marriage framework. Because each of these people comes from their own form of unstable family, they wind up creating their own. It’s not a feel-good kind of family really, because like a blood family, many of the members don’t even really like each other. In The Beet Queen, we have seven different narrators spanning 40 or years of time. These voices include three women whose lives are wholly interconnected, an absent rogue (brother to one, cousin to another, lover to the third), an earnest, decent man who sticks around, a young daughter born halfway through the novel, and a third-person narrator who brings a sense of objectivity and distance to its sections.
Some sample sections:
“Later that evening, when I’d finally put a call through and we were waiting for the emergency jeep that would not arrive until morning, Celestine held the baby toward me.
‘Hold her,’ she said, ‘and listen. I’ve got to name her after you.’
Stunned, I drew the baby to me. She’d retreated into a deep hypnotic sleep, but her tiny calm face seemed full of stubborn purpose. I pored over the set of her wide mouth, the pointed and minuscule chin. I was taken with her, completely, and blinded by happiness at the unlikely thought of her having my name.
‘What’s your second name?’ Celestine asked.
I told her, but it was worse than Wallace. Horst.
‘Give me her back,’ said Celestine. ‘I’ll have to think.’”
The waitress put their steaming plates down, and Dot lowered her head to the food. She ate fast, without looking up. The long dangly loops in her ears hit her chin every time she took a bite. Karl watched her and had the sad thought that he could have influenced her taste in music if he’d been around more. Maybe not living with them, but at least settling down in the area, maybe not seeing her that often, but at least once in a while. He felt reckless and desperate, suddenly, with the loss of this unattractive girl.
‘I’ll tell you what,’ he said, ‘would you listen to some records if I sent them?’
‘It depends,’ said Dot.
Her voice had an edge of knowing. She was conscious of where she stood. She put her fork down and frowned into her plate for such a long time that Celestine finally on the bench and put her hand over Dot’s.
‘Honey,’ she said, ‘would it kill you to say, yes?’
‘Yes,’ said Dot.
This book is a perfectly well-rounded novel and shows many of the various concerns in Erdrich’s writing. It’s not fully representative of her talents, in that some of her later novels are more technically and thematically impressive, but it’s all there already. And maybe that’s a good thing, to give someone the whole of what they can expect from later reading experiences. This is a really good access point to one of the best working writers in the US. And even though this town, and some of its inhabitants do show up in other Erdrich novels, it’s not required to read them in any particular order. They pick up and leave off at different times, with different voices, and different concerns in each.