In The Beet Queen Louise Erdrich has returned to the setting, period, narrative techniques, and to some of the characters, of her admired first novel, Love Medicine, and has made something even richer out of them. Once again we are in North Dakota, at various times between the Great Depression and the present (chapters in Love Medicine are dated between 1934 and 1984, those in The Beet Queen between 1932 and 1972). The Beet Queen of the second book's title is Dot, a girl we saw later in her life in Love Medicine; in the second as in the first novel, some chapters are narrated in the third person, others by one or another of the characters - a technique which may at first seem unnecessarily elaborate or insufficiently exploited, but in time comes to seem right, a gesture of respect for even small differences in perception. Miss Erdrich is as shrewd about complex long-term human bonds in The Beet Queen as she was in the earlier novel, and her sense of comedy is more interesting than it was before. Most of the central characters are now whites rather than Indians, but these new characters and the book they inhabit have taken over one important quality of the Indian experience we saw in Love Medicine: to live in one sort of reality most of the time and either be able to enter into another or imagine how one might be able to enter into another: more specifically, to live in what seems in many ways an ethnically anonymous, junk-food culture, and yet be able to believe - at least sometimes, at least a bit - that there is or that there was a different, richer sort of reality of which one might partake, though its categories and language are now elusive or available only in pieces, and therefore almost certain to be distorted. How great will the distortion be? How much will it matter? In such questions there is potential for considerable comic intricacy.
LRB 19 February 1987 | PDF Download