Wallacette the Rain Queen

Mark Lambert

  • The Beet Queen by Louise Erdrich
    Hamish Hamilton, 338 pp, £10.95, February 1987, ISBN 0 241 12044 6
  • Marya: A Life by Joyce Carol Oates
    Cape, 310 pp, £10.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 224 02420 5
  • The Lost Language of Cranes by David Leavitt
    Viking, 319 pp, £10.95, February 1987, ISBN 0 670 81290 0

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.

We might consider, as a sampling of the ironies and complexities involved in trying to get from here to there, the experience, in the title chapter of Love Medicine, of Lipsha Morrissey, who believes he has ‘the touch’, that he can heal magically. Wishing to make a love medicine which will bring his erring grandfather’s affections back to his grandmother, Lipsha goes out to shoot and take the hearts of a pair of mated-for-life Canada geese. He waits in a slough for the geese, watches the cattails move above his head, watches the blue herons fish, eats ‘a few of these soft baloney sandwiches Grandma made me for lunch’. Lipsha fails to shoot the geese, and then he cheats: he substitutes the hearts of frozen supermarket turkeys for the hearts of the Canada geese. Canada geese and frozen turkeys: that is a nice, very clear contrast, and Lipsha understands its meaning perfectly well. But then there are the difficulties, the intricacies, around that nice clear contrast. Baloney sandwiches, and especially soft baloney sandwiches, are as anonymous, as uninteresting in texture – as secular as a food can be. On the other hand, these are Grandma’s soft baloney sandwiches, and this fact further complicates things. It was Grandma who first suggested the search for a love medicine. But Grandma also denies that she has any Indian blood – though surely she must have, thinks Lipsha, gifted as she is with second sight, having seen a catastrophe to come ‘in the polished-up tin of her bread toaster’. Which modern ways violate the old magic, which are indifferent, which might lead us to it? The Chippewa gods will do a favour, says Lipsha, ‘if you ask them right’. But the need to ask in the right way ‘makes problems’. Lipsha meditates on the nature of faith.

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