These days, the word "romance" evokes a pink sunset, a drugstore book rack, sweet savage something-or-other. But back when the word stubbornly clung to its meaning, the romance was a Roman kind of tale--heroes mixed up in wondrous or mystical events, a world that wrote its own rules. Louise Erdrich's second novel, a successful successor to her highly regarded "Love Medicine," is a romance of the second kind.
Erdrich's heroes, mostly women, live and breathe in a North Dakota of the imagination. Theirs is a flattened-out, dusty terrain, a cold place given to snow. All the warmth in this world comes from people, and then sometimes it doesn't, and that's when a true chill sets in.
It's cold on the morning in 1930 when Karl and Mary Adare, abandoned children, jump off a boxcar and land in Argus, a nowhere town near a Chippewa reservation. (Their mother took them to see the Great Omar, aerialist, placed their baby brother in Mary's arms, hopped in Omar's plane and flew away forever.)
At 11, Mary is a level sort of a girl, having given the baby to a stranger who promises him a good home; she heads for their Aunt Fritzie's house. But 14-year- old Karl is overcome with a need to keep moving. He hops the next freight out of town. Right away, we know we are in the hands of a writer unafraid to send her characters reeling away on paths of adventure. We settle in happily to watch them come back together.
Mary's arrival brings a swift rise of jealousy in her beautiful cousin, Sita, who can't stand to see Mary wearing her castoff outfits. It doesn't help that Mary becomes the miracle girl of Argus (and the hero of her convent school) by smashing head first into a sheet of ice, leaving an imprint of a face. She takes it to be a vision of the departed Karl, but everyone else thinks it's Christ.
"So I shout, 'A MIRACLE' at the top of my lungs," Sita reports. "To do that in a convent is like shouting fire in a crowded movie. They all rush down suddenly, an avalanche of black wool. (Sister) Leopolda springs down last of all, with a fearsome eagerness. A tripod is strapped on one shoulder. Drapes, lights and a box camera are crammed in her arms. It is like she has been right behind her door, armed with equipment, praying year in and year out for this moment to arrive."
That miracle's effects are short-lived, but not Mary's invasion of Argus and her cousin's life. Mary "steals" Sita's best friend, Celestine. She loves working in the butcher shop run by Sita's parents, and eventually takes that over too. Sita awakens and is horrified to discover Mary's hands glowing blue in the dark. Once again, a miracle has arisen from explainable tact, but that's the kind of divine flash you get in Argus.
In a place as devoid of miracles as this, people invent their own.
In a parallel story, Karl comes to no good. He grows into a smooth, despicable, second-rate salesman who reaches out for any man or woman he can have. Eventually, he drifts back to Argus, seduces one of her more noted civic leaders (the soft, unfortunate Wallace Pfef), fathers a child by Celestine, ignores Mary, and winds up in the bushes in front of Sita's house.
The novel skips along swiftly, backing up, jumping forth, in a musical round of scenes told in the voices of each of these characters. The characters grow, become old, shut themselves off from each other, and yet always come back together. They grapple with killer robots in their heads.
The lives cross and recross about as often as the voices change. The technique makes for wonderful fun, allowing us multiple retracted views of singular events.
It allows us some terrible beauty, as well. A woman's breakdown is told from inside, as an unforgettable hallucination. " . . . I went down to the tree where my silver was hung. Bracelets and rings and old coins of it. I put my hands out. The leaves moved over me, gleaming and sharpened, with tarnished edges. They fell off in mounds. The air was a glittering dry rain. While I was down there I said many things. Louis wrote them all on a pad of paper."
This kind of rich writing lends the people such texture that their astonishing turnabouts fall like blows from a chisel, sharpening their features. The women glow and hurl insults and take drastic actions, and find that there really is no difference between what they dream and what is. There is some problem in Argus afflicting the men; they all wind up paralyzed in one way or another.
There is a problem in the novel, too, and it springs from the ambitious structure. The story passes through so many hands that at times, it gets lost or stays with someone longer than we wish it would.
Much of "The Beet Queen" has been published in literary magazines as short stories. It seems that overgreat strides have been taken to bind all the pieces neatly, and the result is a slight letdown at the close. So many delicious things have happened to these characters that we're all worked up for a bang on the gong. What we get sounds a little bit flat.
That's not enough to mar the fine gloss Erdrich has put on her story. She is a luminous writer and has produced a novel rich in movement, beauty, event. Her prose spins and sparkles, and dances right on the heart when it needs to. To use yet another meaning of the word, there is romance in seeing a writer writing so well.