61 pages 2 hours read

Louise Erdrich

The Beet Queen

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1986

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Louise Erdrich’s The Beet Queen, published in 1986, is a sequel to her award-winning debut novel, Love Medicine. The Beet Queen was followed by two other novels in the series, Tracks and The Bingo Palace. Though most of The Beet Queen’s characters are non-Indigenous, the series as a whole is concerned with issues facing Indigenous Americans, particularly those living on tribal lands in Minnesota and North Dakota. Characters and storylines are woven throughout the four novels so that each novel in the series supports and enriches the others, though each also stands as a complete work on its own. An acclaimed author who has received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Erdrich animates the struggles and triumphs of a disparate group of people who depend on each other for comfort and survival.

The Beet Queen focuses on the diverging lives of siblings Mary and Karl Adare, who become separated after their mother, Adelaide, abandons them in childhood. Mary and Karl have another sibling, an infant who hasn’t even been given a name when their mother departs, forcing Mary to relinquish the baby to a stranger because, at 11, she is unable to care for him. With Karl in tow, Mary seeks out her Aunt Fritzie in Argus, North Dakota, hoping to begin a new life there. On her first night in Argus, Mary is separated from Karl and decides not to look for him, feeling as though she has been freed of a burden she could not have borne. The narrative abandons Karl for a time too, focusing instead on Mary’s life in Aunt Fritzie’s home. Mary’s cousin, Sita Kozka, is jealous of the kindness people show Mary and the attention she gets, both as a newcomer and as a child who has suffered a series of devastating losses. Sita’s best friend, Celestine James, abandons her for Mary, and Mary and Celestine go on to maintain a lifelong, if antagonistic, friendship. Years later, Karl returns to town, having been raised in a Catholic orphanage and then in seminary, until he abandoned the Church in outrage at its denigration of LGBTQ sexuality. In Argus, Karl meets and begins an affair with Wallace Pfef, a local entrepreneur whose beet fields have transformed the town’s economy. When Celestine gives birth to Dot—originally named Wallacette for Wallace, who helped to deliver her—the child becomes the gravitational force that brings all these lives together.

All quotations in this guide come from the 1989 Bantam Books paperback edition. The source text features interludes between each chapter; for the sake of guide navigation, interludes are grouped with the preceding chapter.

Content Warning: The novel depicts an act of suicide, which this guide discusses.

Plot Summary

Mary and Karl Adare arrive, via boxcar, in the town of Argus, North Dakota, in spring 1932. Their father has died, and their mother has abandoned them. Ironically, she orphans her children at a local charity picnic intended to raise money for orphans. Mary and Karl’s aunt, Fritzie Kozka, owns a butcher shop in Argus, and the two abandoned children seek shelter with her and her husband, Pete. As they grow into adulthood, Mary and Karl’s futures take very different directions. While Mary remains rooted in Argus, eventually taking over and running the butcher shop herself, Karl becomes a wanderer, an itinerant salesman who rejects the comfort of stability and friendship.

Mary’s cousin Sita never becomes comfortable with Mary’s role in the family. Mary is more like Sita’s own mother, Aunt Fritzie, than Sita can ever be, and Sita’s father takes pity on the young, abandoned child. The growing conflict between Mary and Sita is exacerbated by Mary’s close friendship with Celestine James, formerly Sita’s best friend—though that friendship was largely based on Sita’s possessive control over Celestine. Sita spends much of her life trying to prove herself better than Mary. She moves to Fargo to become a model, as Mary cannot compete with Sita’s attractiveness. She returns to Argus to marry, subsequently opening a fancy French restaurant that refuses to source its materials from Mary’s shop. Later, she remarries a successful, if emotionally distant, state health inspector. Mary herself will never marry. However, Sita’s fragile psychological state slowly unravels over time. She disassociates from reality, is briefly institutionalized, and becomes addicted to pills. Her unraveling can be explained, at least in part, by her break with the Catholic Church, and her delusions take on a distinctly church-inflected form, full of judgment and punishment. She also harbors suppressed guilt over her actions, particularly with regard to Mary: She has intercepted letters from Mary’s long-lost younger brother, Jude Miller, never revealing that she knows where he is; she has retrieved Mary’s mother’s garnet necklace from a pawn shop, never giving Mary her only inheritance; and she relies on Mary’s help when in crisis without ever showing a shred of gratitude. Sita’s life has been slowly but inexorably defined by her thwarted ambitions and her antagonistic relationship with her cousin Mary. Her suicide, after a long decline, is tragic but not shocking.

Meanwhile, Mary and Celestine run the butcher shop together, developing a contentious intimacy over the decades, as the town changes around them. Karl returns to town for a time, and though he is typically more attracted to men, he and Celestine have a brief, passionate affair that results in Celestine’s pregnancy. Her daughter, Wallacette, is named for the local town booster, Wallace Pfef, who helped to deliver the baby—and also happens to be the man who brings the sugar beet fields to Argus. Before the affair with Celestine, Karl and Wallace engaged in a sexual encounter at an agricultural convention in Minneapolis. This encounter inspires Wallace’s vision for the development of the beet fields in Argus, a cash crop that will turn dirt roads into bypasses.

Wallacette, nicknamed Dot by a jealous Mary, will become the center of each of these disparate character’s lives in one form or another. Karl will become an absent father, impacting Dot’s emotional development. Mary will become a fiercely protective aunt, indulging Dot’s worst instincts. Celestine will become a devoted mother, fending off Mary’s intrusions. Wallace will become a surrogate father, trying too hard to win over her fickle affections. Dot herself is a difficult child turned even more difficult teenager through the course of the book. She is demanding, angry, and sullen; she is over-indulged and under-disciplined; and she lies without remorse. Still, she is bright, inventive, and never afraid to be herself—a trait Wallace particularly admires.

Thus, Wallace concocts the annual beet festival, complete with parade, fair, and—most importantly—the coronation of the Beet Queen. The town is in the midst of a ruinous drought, and few believe the festival should happen under the circumstances, but Wallace will not be deterred. He does all of this with tireless devotion so that Dot can be the winner for once and so that he can see her self-confidence soar. To make her the winner, however, he rigs the vote, and when Dot discovers his ruse, she is humiliated and furious. She jumps into a plane, in an echo of Mary’s mother, Adelaide, and soars off into the sky. But, in contrast to Adelaide, Dot is disturbed by the empty sky, sickened by the loops and lurches of the plane as it skywrites her name above the crowds. As soon as the plane lands, after all the crowds have dispersed, Dot returns to her mother—the only one left waiting for her—and to her home. The long drought is finally broken by a steady rain.

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