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So that's how I came to Argus. I was the girl in the stiff coat.
After I ran blind and came to a halt, shocked not to find Karl behind me, I looked up to watch for him and heard the train whistle long and shrill. That was when I realized Karl had probably jumped back on the same boxcar and was now hunched in straw, watching out the opened door. The only difference would be the fragrant stick blooming in his hand. I saw the train pulled like a string of black beads over the horizon, as I have seen it so many times since. When it was out of sight, I stared down at my feet. I was afraid. It was not that with Karl gone I had no one to protect me, but just the opposite. With no one to protect and look out for, I was weak. Karl was taller than me but spindly, older of course, but fearful. He suffered from fevers that kept him in a stuporous dream state and was sensitive to loud sounds, harsh lights. My mother called him delicate, but I was the opposite. I was the one who begged spotted apples from the grocery store and stole whey from the back stoop of the creamery in Minneapolis, where we were living the winter after my father died.
This story starts then, because before that and without the year 1929, our family would probably have gone on living comfortably in a lonely and isolated white house on the edge of Prairie Lake.
We rarely saw anyone else. There were just us three: Karl and me and our mother, Adelaide. There was something different about us even then. Our only visitor was Mr. Ober, a tall man with a carefully trimmed black beard. He owned a whole county of Minnesotawheatland. Two or three times a week he appeared, in the late evenings, and parked his automobile in the barn.
Karl hated Mr. Ober's visits, but I looked forward to each one because my mother always brightened. It was like a change of weather in our house. I remember that on the last night Mr. Ober came to visit, she put on the blue silk dress and the necklace of sparkling stones that we knew had come from him. She wound and pinned her dark red braid into a crown, and then brushed my hair one hundred light, even strokes. I closed my eyes and listened to the numbers. "You didn't get this from me," she said at last, letting the hair fall limp and black about my shoulders.
When Mr. Ober arrived, we sat with him in the parlor. Karl posed on the horsehair sofa and pretended a fascination with the red diamonds woven into the carpet. As usual, I was the one whom Mr. Ober singled out for petting. He put me on his lap, called me Schatze. "For your hair, Little Miss," he said, pulling a green satin ribbon from his vest pocket. His voice was deep pitched, but I liked the sound of it in counterpoint to or covering my mother's. Later, after Karl and I were sent to bed, I stayed awake and listened to the grown-up's voices rise and tangle, then fall, first in the downstairs parlor and then, muffled, in the dining room. I heard both of them walk up the stairs. The big door closed at the end of the hall. I kept my eyes open. There was darkness, the creaks and thumps that a house makes at night, wind in the branches, tapping. By morning he was gone.
The next day Karl sulked until our mother hugged and kissed him back into good humor. I was sad, too, but with me she was short of temper.
Karl always read the comics in the Sunday paper first, and so he was the one who found the picture of Mr. Ober and his wife on the front page. There had been a grain-loading accident, and Mr. Ober had smothered. Therewas a question, too, of suicide.He'd borrowed heavily against his land. Mother and I were cleaning out drawers in the kitchen, cutting white paper out to fit them, when Karl brought the piece in to show us. I remember that Adelaide's hair was plaited in two red crooked braids and that she fell full length across the floor when she read the news. Karl and I huddled close to her, and when she opened her eyes
I helped her into a chair.
she threw her head back and forth, would not speak, shuddered
like a broken doll. Then she looked at Karl.
"You're glad!" she cried.
Karl turned his head away, sullen.
"He was your father," she blurted.
So it was out.
My mother knew she'd lose everything now. His wife was smiling in the photograph. Our big white house was in Mr. Ober's name, along with everything else except an automobile, which Adelaide sold the next morning. On the day of the funeral, we took the noon train to the Cities with only what we could carry in suitcases. My mother thought that there, with her figure and good looks, she could find work in a fashionable store.
But she didn't know that she was pregnant. She didn't know how much things really cost, or the hard facts of Depression. After six months the money ran out. We, were desperate.
I didn't know how badly off we were until my mother stole a dozen heavy silver spoons from our landlady, who was kind, or at least harbored no grudge against us, and whom my mother counted as a friend. Adelaide gave no explanation for the spoons when I discovered them in her pocket. Days later they were gone and Karl and I owned thick overcoats. Also, our shelf was loaded with green bananas.Beet Queen. Copyright © by Louise Erdrich. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
In the past year alone, Louise Erdrich completed one novel, nearly finished another, opened a bookstore and, at forty-six, gave birth to a daughter named Azure. When Erdrich walks into her Minneapolis store, Birch Bark Books, Herbs and Native Arts, she is juggling an armful of paper and books and passing out chocolate tins with pictures of Elvis Presley and the cartoon character Pepe Le Pew on top. She adjusts Azure, who's ready to be fed. "Overdoing it is my motto," she announces. "I'm one of those overdoing-it mothers."
Motherhood isn't the only area where Erdrich overachieves. She's published nine books of fiction, two volumes of poetry, two children's books, a book of essays, and numerous short stories and poems. Her work is recognized for its complexity and for its poetic, touching, gently sarcastic, and humorous voice. Erdrich delves into how Native and European American cultures come together, clash, fall apart and, at times, figure each other out and learn to love. Showing compassion for all her characters -- no matter what their weaknesses or sins, of which they tend to have a multitude -- she often writes stories with more than one point of view. She did so masterfully in her first and best-known book, Love Medicine, and she does so -- again, masterfully -- in the new one, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. Lyrically reflective, wittily refracted, and adeptly sensual, the story centers on Agnes DeWitt, who, because of a series of passions and events, lives most of her life as Father Damien Modeste, a mission priest on an Indian reservation between 1912 and 1996. The Last Report -- the sixth in a series of Erdrich books to focus on two families in Argus, a fictional Red River Valley reservation town along the Minnesota-North Dakota border -- is as thoroughly imbued with a challenging kind of spirituality as it is graced with an intriguing story.
Rich and complex as Erdrich's writing is, her life matches it for intensity and involvement -- and she wouldn't have it any other way. "I only enjoy life if it's really complicated," she says. She exudes a calm strength, but hers is a serenity earned, likely necessitated, by a life and career visited often by controversy and tragedy.
At Birch Bark Books, Erdrich's complexity is on display. There's an oil painting, for instance, by imprisoned activist Leonard Peltier, of Ka-ishpah, a forefather of Erdrich and freedom fighter of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, the same band to which Erdrich (of Ojibwe and German heritage) and Peltier belong. Erdrich attended Peltier's 1977 trial for the murder of two FBI agents and is confident that "not one scintilla" of hard evidence linked Peltier to the murders. After Peltier was convicted (he's been held in Leavenworth Prison for twenty-four years), she wrote to him and they began a correspondence. In December, The New York Times published her editorial in support of Peltier while President Clinton was considering a pardon; it was not granted. On another wall is a shelf filled with books by Michael Dorris, Erdrich's former husband and writing partner. Erdrich met Dorris in 1972 when she enrolled in Dartmouth's first coed class; he was the head of the Native American Studies program. The two didn't get involved until several years after Erdrich graduated and after she'd worked as a waitress, a poetry teacher at prisons, a construction-flag signaler, an editor for the Boston Indian Council's newspaper, The Circle, and had earned a master's degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins. By then, Dorris was a father, the adoptive single parent of three Native American children who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, an experience he described in a 1989 memoir, The Broken Cord. Erdrich and Dorris married in 1981, had three daughters, and collaborated intensely on projects, including co-authoring the 1991 novel The Crown of Columbus.
But their life together unraveled. They separated in 1995, and were planning to divorce, when allegations of criminal sexual child abuse were leveled against Dorris by some of his children. He was under investigation, but nothing was resolved. Dorris committed suicide in 1997.
After Dorris's death, Erdrich was pursued by rumor and innuendo about the couple's marriage, their separation, their family, their careers. Published next to an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that explained the allegations and details about Dorris's death -- a story for which Erdrich declined to be interviewed -- was a letter she wrote the editor. She expressed thanks to the community for its kind support, and asked that her family be granted privacy and time to grieve.
Today, Erdrich fiercely guards her privacy and that of her children. Quite simply, she states, "I'm finished talking about relationships." But her writing speaks to that which she won't; The Last Report can be seen as an extended reflection on exactly that -- relationships -- and it explores other issues central to Erdrich's life.
"I think every book is connected to a writer's psyche, but I can't say I know exactly how," Erdrich says. "It would be easy to say you were having gender issues at the same time you were writing, or a religious crisis. Certainly the task of my life has been to bring my daughters through a period of grief, but I don't think that's what the book is about entirely. It is about surviving, but I think it's about surviving yourself. The book became to me a search for a spiritual solution to the old human dilemma: Why am I me and why am I here and why is it so hard to be who I am?"
Hearing the Stories
A few years ago, Erdrich and her daughters walked by a blackened storefront window in their peaceful Minneapolis neighborhood. They started fantasizing about opening a bookstore, "complete with the bookstore cat you see in all those British movies." When the space came up for lease, Erdrich and her sister, poet Heid Erdrich, decided to start a business.
After stripping it back to its original bones -- it was originally a meat market, then a dentist's office -- they put in a stairway made from birch trees some friends in Wisconsin had found blown down on their land. Then they brought in the confessional.
Erdrich -- who claims to have a terrible addiction to rummage sales, estate sales, and anything vintage -- rescued the intricately carved Roman Catholic confessional from an architectural salvage store. Heid thought they could wire the confessional for CDs on one side and tapes on the other; their mother suggested they put books with sins in the title -- especially those about the seven deadly sins -- inside. Dream catchers dangle from the confessional's corners. A plain, framed copy of the U.S. Government's 1837 Treaty with the Chippewa hangs inside. It's a three-dimensional metaphor, raising questions about the role of the church and government in the life of Native Americans during the colonization of North America and bringing together both sides of Erdrich's ancestry. Though it serves mainly as decoration, Erdrich admits that she bought it because she "wanted to sit in the priest's box for once."
The confessional, a place of comfort and grace, is a reminder of the sanctity of stories and necessity of privacy. As a writer, Erdrich has been sitting in the priest's box for a long time. "Fiction for me is listening," she says. "It's about what I hear. I keep notes and I jot things down all the time and see what comes over the airwaves, what comes over the brain waves."
The oldest of seven children, Erdrich was born in Little Falls, Minnesota, and raised in Wahpeton, North Dakota, where her parents both taught at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school. An avid reader, she also enjoyed the record player her father purchased with green stamps. "Not only did I read Shakespeare, but I had the record of King Lear, which was fantastic. Being in North Dakota, I never actually saw a stage production, but I heard King Lear. I can still hear that record, the sound of those voices." The voices Erdrich listened to while writing Love Medicine came to her primarily as first-person confessions. The book is a multigenerational portrait of two Ojibwe families, the Kashpaws and Lamartines, set in Argus. Over the past seventeen years, those whispers have added up to five more novels about the Kashpaws and Lamartines: The Beet Queen, Tracks, The Bingo Palace, Tales of Burning Love, and, now, The Last Report. "These are the people who came and talked to me way back when," Erdrich says. "And they keep talking to me, so I have to keep writing about them. I don't have a real choice about it. It's not like I can say, 'Now, I'm finished.' Because then they come back and they have another story to tell."
She stays busy with other stories, too. Starting in 1996, for instance, she published three books in three years: Grandmother's Pigeon, a children's story, The Antelope Wife, and The Birchbark House, which her friend Mark Anthony Rolo, a playwright and the former editor of Minneapolis's Native American newspaper, The Circle, says was the result of her dream to write the Native American version of Little House on the Prairie. She illustrated the book, which became a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature.
"The great thing about Louise," says Rolo, a member of the Bad River Ojibwe, "is that she lives in a Native community in town. And her family is well rooted in her community back home. She is not the Jane Austen of the Native community looking out a window at the industrial plight of her people."
The First Step of The Last Report
Erdrich started writing The Last Report in 1988, originally intending it to explain how all the earlier novels came into being. She imagined the local priest in Argus, Father Damien, who had appeared as a minor character in Love Medicine, divulging all the confessions of the community to a writer, who would turn out to be Erdrich herself. It wasn't until six years and several books later that Erdrich picked up The Last Report again. The completed version chronicles the life of Father Damien. Erdrich started the book with two images: a woman in a white nightgown floating down a river on the top of a piano, and a priest taking his clothes off for bed and revealing that he is actually a woman. Turns out they became the same person.
Some of those images come directly from Erdrich's life. Though no longer a practicing Roman Catholic, she was raised in the church and still reads everything that comes her way about Catholicism. A nun taught her piano when she was a young girl; she resumed playing in her late thirties, during "a particularly difficult time" and was astonished that her fingers remembered the old pieces. Today, she calls it an incredible solace to be able to have music when she wants it. "For a time I relied upon it so much," she says. "It was enormously consoling." As for the river, growing up, Erdrich was always conscious of its moods: The nearby Red River flooded when she was a child, and again in April 1997. It devastated Grand Forks, North Dakota, that time: It reached flood stage on April 4, and the dikes overflowed on Friday, April 18; Michael Dorris died in the midst of that flood (his body was found on April 11, 1997). The Last Report, which in its early pages is visited by a flood, ends in 1997, too.
Erdrich's new book is filled with lost love, lost identities, stories in danger of being forgotten, illness and death. But at its heart, The Last Report -- lyrical and funny and mesmerizing -- is about someone who, rather than being overwhelmed by loss, survives it. Agnes, in spite of her deprivations, achieves a fantastically full life.
"Agnes really has to live through the fact that she has an amazing drive to follow what her spirit dictates. She does follow it, and it is immensely difficult," Erdrich says of her heroine. "So maybe that's what it's about. And if it's autobiographical, what can I say?" She laughs. "It's hard surviving Louise. Louise has trouble surviving Louise."
But as she finishes her next novel, she has help. It's been a few years since she's had an infant with her while she works. "I talk to Azure every morning, and I say, 'So you're going to help me write the book, right?' " Then, after she gets her older daughters ready for school, Erdrich sneaks up to her room with a cup of tea. She ties the ropes of an Ojibwe swing to her foot so she can swing Azure and write at the same time.
"Maybe when I'm eighty, I'll start being a person who will choose the less complex of the choices, and life will be manageable," Erdrich says. "But I don't do that. I have an overwhelming need to experience everything that life can possibly offer." (Karen Olson)
"Everything that happened to him in his life," she said, "all the things we said and did. Where did it go?"
I didn't have an answer, so I just drove. Once I had caused a miracle by smashing my face on ice, but now I was an ordinary person. In the few miles we had left I could not help drawing out Celestine's strange ideas in my mind. In my line of work I've seen thousands of brains that belonged to sheep, pork, steers. They were all gray lumps like ours. Where did everything go? What was really inside? The flat fields unfolded, the shallow ditches ran beside the road. felt the live thoughts hum inside me, and I pictured tiny bees, insects made of blue electricity, in a colony so fragile that it would scatter at the slightest touch. I imagined a blow, like a mallet to the sheep, or a stroke, and I saw the whole swarm vibrating out. Who could stop them? Who could catch them in their hands?--Mary Adare in The Beet Queen
On a cold spring morning in 1932, fourteen-year old Karl Adare and his eleven-year-old sister, Mary, arrive by freight train in Argus, North Dakota. Abandoned by their mother, they have come to look for their mother's sister, Fritzie, who runs the House of Meats with her husband. The two Adares lose each other. Karl is frightened by a dog and runs back to the boxcar and Mary runs the other way, toward town. So it begins the forty-long story of a community and its people, held together by blood, circumstance, habit, will, and passion. Changes sweep across their lives--in the figures of birth, death, and descent into madness, and in the shape of a growing sugar beet industry. The novelfollows the lives of Mary, who stays in Argus and takes over the butcher shop, and Karl, who seems determined to avenge his being cast aside, compulsively returning to and fleeing from all emotional ties. Narrated by various characters, the novel charts Mary's powerful dream life. She is a girl who causes miracles, but she is annoyed by her self-centered and unstable cousin, Sita Kozka. Mary's part-Chippewa childhood friend Celestine James and their lonely neighbor, Wallace Pfef, narrate different sections of the novel. The birth of Wallacette Darlene Adare, Celestine's daughter by Karl, brings together the lives of the characters in surprising ways. Dot sees herself as the "logical outcome" of a "thread beginning with my grandmother Adelaide and travelling through my father and arriving at me. The thread is flight."
Topics for Discussion
1. The Beet Queen deals with the themes of parenting and being a parent through various characters: Adelaide; Catherine Miller; Fritzie; Celestine; Mary; Wallace; and Karl. How do individual characters reflect some of the conflicts of being a parent? Why do you think these characters behave the way they do? What do you think being a good father or a good mother means?
2. In Chapter Fifteen, Karl insists, "I give nothing, take nothing, mean nothing, hold nothing." Is this an accurate self-assessment on Karl's part? Why does he want to see himself in this way? Do you think it is possible to be this way? How and why does he change? How do other characters struggle against--or for--connection? What does the novel suggest about the pull of the past, of family, of community on the individual?
3. The novel is unflinching in its portrayal of the aggressive and destructive side of people. What do you think is the novel's view of human motivation and behavior? How do you feel about some of the characters--especially Mary, Karl, Sita, Celestine, and wallace?
4. Erdrich once commented that "a title is like a magnet: It begins to draw these scraps of experience or conversation or memory to it. Eventually, it collects a book." Why do you think the novel is called The Beet Queen?
About the Author:Louise Erdrich is one of the most gifted, prolific, and challenging of contemporary Native American novelists. Born in 1954 in Little Falls, Minnesota, she grew up mostly in Wahpeton, North Dakota, where her parents taught at Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. Her fiction reflects aspects of her mixed heritage: German through her father, and French and Ojibwa through her mother. She worked at various jobs, such as hoeing sugar beets, farm work, waitressing, short order cooking, lifeguarding, and construction work, before becoming a writer. She attended the Johns Hopkins creative writing program and received fellowships at the McDowell Colony and the Yaddo Colony. After she was named writer-in-residence at Dartmouth, she married professor Michael Dorris and raised several children, some of them adopted. She and Michael became a picture-book husband-and-wife writing team, though they wrote only one truly collaborative novel, The Crown of Columbus (1991).
The Antelope Wife was published in 1998, not long after her separation from Michael and his subsequent suicide. Some reviewers believed they saw in The Antelope Wife the anguish Erdrich must have felt as her marriage crumbled, but she has stated that she is unconscious of having mirrored any real-life events.
She is the author of four previous bestselling and award-winning novels, including Love Medicine; The Beet Queen; Tracks; and The Bingo Palace. She also has written two collections of poetry, Jacklight, and Baptism of Desire. Her fiction has been honored by the National Book Critics Circle (1984) and The Los Angeles Times (1985), and has been translated into fourteen languages.
Several of her short stories have been selected for O. Henry awards and for inclusion in the annual Best American Short Story anthologies. The Blue Jay's Dance, a memoir of motherhood, was her first nonfiction work, and her children's book, Grandmother's Pigeon, has been published by Hyperion Press. She lives in Minnesota with her children, who help her run a small independent bookstore called The Birchbark.
Posted March 2, 2004
This is my first Louise Erdrich book. She has a very strong voice that pulls you in, wanting more. There were a lot of twists and turns, too many in fact. All of the characters were thrown into impossible situations, with no way out. My expectations were too high for this novel.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 2, 2004
I loved this book. I tought me how to really appricat my life. Not only Dose the book show the bonds of friendship but it also shows how hard it is to be a single mother.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 22, 2000
I have read hundreds of books in my life and this is the one I come back to over and over again. It will make you laugh and cry out loud. A truly outstanding book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 5, 2000
Was 1 of the first books I read by this author. I always found her to be very strong with her storytelling expertise. Surprising things are always happening.......characters are very realWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 28, 2008
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Posted November 27, 2009
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Posted February 7, 2009
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