Picks and Pans Review: The Beet Queen

updated 09/29/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/29/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Louise Erdrich

Anyone who ever grew up in a small town in the United States will be right at home in Erdrich's lively new novel. At the heart of her story are three women: Mary Adare, who with her older brother lands in Argus, N.Dak. after hopping a freight car during the Depression; Mary's cousin Sita, whose parents run the meat market, and Celestine James, the girl who becomes Mary's best friend. Mary is chunky, solid and determined. When her aunt and uncle retire to Florida, Mary takes over their business. Sita is pretty and vain and goes off for a few years to work and model in a city department store. Celestine, who is part Indian, is a big woman, and she has an affair with Mary's shiftless brother, Karl. He is loved in turn by one of the town's leading citizens, a still-closeted gay man who would make Argus the sugar beet capital of the country. These people are all of an original sort not often found in novels, as were the characters in Erdrich's earlier Love Medicine. They work hard—if blindly—at living, get themselves up in weird clothes and behave, on occasion, outrageously. They are also unforgettable. Erdrich has some scenes that are too obtrusive—they're set pieces framed in such a way that they distract from the whole. She sometimes tells the same incident from more than one character's point of view, which slows the narrative and doesn't always add much. Still, from all the considerable turmoil of this incident-lavish plot comes a girl named Dot Adare, who "ate our hearts to the bone, devoured us, grew robust on our grief and our bewilderment." She's a remarkable fictional creation, and one that well deserves to be experienced. (Holt, $16.95)

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