The Beet Queen: A Novel

by Louise Erdrich

Paperback, 2006

Call number




Harper Perennial (2006), Edition: Reissue, 368 pages


In the early 1930s, Karl and his sister Mary Adare, arrive by boxcar in Argus, a small off-reservation town in North Dakota. Orphaned, they look to their mother's sister Fritzie and her husband for refuge.

User reviews

LibraryThing member bragan
Louise Erdrich is an excellent, compelling writer, with a fine sense of the quirks of human psychology, all of which is entirely evident in this early novel. And yet, it also feels a bit... off-kilter. I think it's that so many of the most pivotal events in it have this feeling of absurdity about
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them. Which I think is deliberate, but maybe it doesn't quite work for me? Most notably, there's the precipitating event of the whole story, in which a woman abandons her children in a strange, almost surreal sort of way: by buying a ticket for a ride in an airplane at a fair, and then just flying off with the pilot, forever. Which just kind of left me going, "huh?" for the rest of the novel. It's not that I have an issue with the absurd or the surreal, but there's something about it that just doesn't quite mesh with the more realistic aspects. And the characters have much the same kind of feel to them, really, that mix of the deeply believable and the weirdly over-the-top. And, while they and their inter-relationships are interesting, they're also often horrible and offputting, and there were times when I found myself getting tired of, or even disgusted with, their company.

And yet, even when she's doing things that don't 100% work... man, Erdrich can write.

Rating: It's impossible to know how to rate this, because it's either flawed but still really good or rather disappointing, depending on what standards I try to hold it to. I'm giving it a 3.5/5, but I don't know if I feel great about that.
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LibraryThing member yourotherleft
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member bookheaven
None of the characters are particularly likeable but it's an interesting read.
LibraryThing member drpeff
good character development, tragic, feelings of desolation & fate.
LibraryThing member m.a.harding
wonderful warm story telling. great characters, stories of awful hurt and terror and irony. Greek tragedy and modern comedy
LibraryThing member siubhank
Louise Erdrich once said that her novels fell "together like a quilt, a crazy quilt,", and The Beet Queen is no exception. The story begins in 1932, with the orphaned young Mary and Karl Adare getting off a train in Argus, North Dakota . A threatening dog sends Karl running back to the train. Mary
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runs in the other direction, towards her aunt's house. Their lives literally take different paths at that point. Mary grows up as the despised cousin of lovely Sita and the foster daughter of Pete and Fritzie who own a butcher shop. Karl eventually ends up back in Minnesota, to grow up in a Catholic children's home. The people who know them, add their voices to weave a story that goes beyond Karl and Mary to include the entire town of Argus. Spanning forty years, the novel chronicles changes, not only within the characters, but in the town and the times in general. Erdrich has constructed a powerful novel out of many voices and individual stories.
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LibraryThing member readyreader
One of my favorite authors, Louise Erdrich creates characters that I have absolutely no identity with, but for whom I have total compassion and fascination. Her stories always remind me that there are all sorts of people who make up the world, and they all do not think or behave as I do. Thank
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goodness for that!
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LibraryThing member freddlerabbit
I had been growing tired of Erdrich's works when I picked up the Beet Queen; I decided to read it anyway, as it was on the shelf. I came away pleasantly surprised and delighted. Although the families familiar from Erdrich's other works do appear in the book - Fleur Pillager and Russell Kashpaw, for
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example - they are not the center of the story. The focus of this novel is on transplanted folks - a child who blew into town after being abandoned with her siblings by her mother, and planted her feet firmly down in the two and made it her own. Told in alternating points of view but focusing on this woman, a friend, and her niece, the book covers her life from beginning through middle age, against the backdrop of rapidly changing times.

It is engaging, well-paced, and surprising, despite some of the familiar persons.
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LibraryThing member Periodista
Great distinct characters with Erdrich's characteristic feel for time and place. Not to mention the bodily mishaps that wallop nearly every characters (notice that mild, sweet but flawed Wallace was spared?). Alternating chapters from different character's POV worked until near the end. Feel in
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particular that first person for Dot was so bad. Diction was off for a kid ("gently" followed by "crap" and so on).
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LibraryThing member Y2Ash
It's hard to describe how I really feel about Louise Erdrich's The Beet Queen. I knew when Erdrich included a family tree in the beginning of the novel, that it was going to be intense. That's what The Beet Queen was: intense, unfortunate, and heartbreaking.

The Beet Queen tells different
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narratives from different point of views during 1932-1971 in North Dakota. Mary and Karl Adare are abandoned by their free spirited mother, Adelaide, and their baby brother is stolen during a fair.

They get on a boxcar on their way to their aunt and uncle's house. After arriving, they get split up: Karl winds up being a wandering salesman and Mary finds her aunt and uncle, carving out a life with them, her cousin Sita, and Sita's friend, Celestine.

Their stories and lives intersect. They meet new people. They start new businesses. They start new familes. Sometimes, they go crazy. They die.

The Beet Queen was an epic tale of melacholia. The characters weren't entirely likable. Their motives and actions were questionable. I felt bad for Mary because she ended up alone. I thought that Celestine, who was showed as smart enough, was stupid to sleep with Karl especially since he seemed unhinged from the get-go. Jude had no part in the narrative which was a shame because it could have been more intriguing.

Sita was a mega bitch. She was horrible to Mary and possessive to Celestine. But I felt bad on how she ended up. She went crazy and died and that was that. I hated Dot! She was absolutely atrocious! She was a spoiled unappreciative ingrate and I absolutely abhor reading her parts.

I couldn't help but feel since this is part of a series, and The Beet Queen is not first of it, I felt a bit of a disconnect.
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LibraryThing member munchie13
I really loved this book, I think because there wasn't a single character I liked. I remained interested from beginning until end which is rare these days. Looking forward to reading more by this author.
LibraryThing member DrFuriosa
A multi-generational family drama about imposing past pain on future generations. This is a good character study, although I am not always sold on family drama. 3.5 stars.
LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Mary and Karl Adare arrived in Argus, North Dakota in 1932, after an unusual and dramatic abandonment by their mother. Karl, 14, immediately struck out on his own, while Mary, 11, was taken in by her aunt and uncle who ran the local butcher. This sets the stage for a sprawling tale that follows
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both siblings into late adulthood. While Karl makes occasional appearances that give a sense of his life over the years, most of the story takes place in Argus, where Mary grows up alongside her cousin Sita and friend Celestine. Mary and Celestine eventually end up running the butcher shop, while Sita tries to distance herself from the family and move up in the world. The lives and relationships of these three women, as well as Celestine’s daughter Dot, are fuel for a number of comedic set pieces. There were poignant scenes as well, and these usually revolved around the male characters, which I thought was an interesting twist on the traditional “troubled woman” trope. Louise Erdrich also uses this novel to quietly point out the impact of the changing agricultural landscape, as small farms are taken over by large sugar beet operations.

The Beet Queen doesn’t have as much Native American spirituality and culture as some of her other books; I actually wish there had been more of that. However, the preposterous storylines and humor provide a different experience. If you can set aside any notions of practicality and go with the flow, you’ll enjoy the ride.
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LibraryThing member kukulaj
Richly imagined. A small town in North Dakota. A steady intensity, people struggling, finding ways to make meaning. Desperate lushness.
LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
In the second of the Love Medicine series, Erdrich brings her German ancestry into the mix, with the story of how the strangely orphaned Adare children arrived in Argus, North Dakota, looking for their Aunt Fritzie, who runs a butcher shop with her husband. Mary Adare clashes with her cousin Sita;
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inherits the meat business; develops a bit of a crush on Russell Kashpaw, a veteran of two wars and many wounds; and finds unsettling friendship with Russell's half sister, Celestine, the mother of a child Mary would wish to call her own. Again, complex relationships, a mixture of past and present, and hints of untold tales begging to be revealed. The title's relevance does not come clear until very near the end, which I found a bit unsatisfactory. In fact, this one didn't work especially well for me, possibly because it was all new---I hadn't read this one before. I think Erdrich is like Faulkner in this regard...she cannot simply be read, she must be re-read (with a nod to Jay Parini, who made the observation about Uncle Billy in the first place).
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