miracle on ice, glowing hands, devouring lawns

December 13, 2011

I’ve been intending to offer some remarks on Louise Erdrich’s The Beet Queen. But I’m without my notes or a copy of my book—and yet still feel compelled to tap on the keyboard. Actually, I’m glad they’re elsewhere. Something about the tyranny of thoughts and past intentions. I’m free to riff however I want. Erdrich is known for multi-generational and multi-ethnic dramas that span decades. I read Love Medicine several years ago and promptly fell in love with the author’s photo. Erdrich is beautiful in a natural sort of way. Thoughtful, too. But primarily I fell in love with her because she’s a damn fine writer. Of course, it says something about both The Beet Queen and Love Medicine that in a post ostensibly about the former I’m so easily drawn to the latter. (Pardon the syntax. Can you improve on it?) Although I’m not an ardent admirer of magical realism, the aspect of The Beet Queen that returns to me now is Erdrich’s unique brand of magical realism, infused as it is by a cross-cultural strain of Catholicism and Native American spirituality. In one episode, Mary is playing in the yard at a Catholic school in winter. A slide has a sheen of ice on it. And the children are sliding down it on their feet Silver Surfer style. Mary face plants on a frozen puddle on the asphalt. The ice cracks and crazes into an image of her brother Karl’s face although the nuns think it’s Jesus. A miracle. Actually, it’s a miracle no matter how you interpret it. In another episode, Mary’s cousin, the shallow and vain Sita, is terrified one night in the bedroom when Mary’s hands begin to glow softly with blue light. Warm or cool, we don’t know. Just a mysterious blue light. In a final magical-realist scene, Karl, the lost and dismayed brother of Mary, is sitting outside in the yard on a lawn chair when he’s falsely accused of stealing jewelery. The chair lurches against his will and the legs begin to sink into the grass, slowly, inexorably, until he disappears at last beneath the grass without so much as a green ripple. Shame is powerful that way. So too is fury and indignation. While Karl is being consumed, one naturally thinks he’s dying of helplessness. But he doesn’t die. He’s belched up later in the story without explanation. All of which is entirely in keeping with magical realism. Causes are good for some things, but not miracles on ice, blue glowing hands or lawns that ingest people like mouths and stomachs.