In “The Lager Queen of Minnesota,” the family drama concerns two sisters, Edith and Helen, estranged since their father died and left the family farm to Helen in 1967. We meet Edith first, in 2003, and she remains convinced at age 64 that her younger sister finagled this injustice: “Helen had to have manipulated him into changing his will; there was no other explanation.” Her bitterness is uncharacteristic; Edith strives to be as sweet as the pies she bakes at the nursing home where she’s worked for 37 years. Her idea of a salary negotiation is to tell her boss that she’s looking for a second job to make ends meet, then gratefully accept his offer to raise her pay 50 cents an hour. Even after a local paper rates her pies “third-best in Minnesota” and an upscale bakery approaches her, Edith hesitates; in her mind, satisfying a personal ambition makes her too much like Helen. But she has a husband with early-onset Alzheimer’s to support, and the first chapter closes with Edith nervously deciding to pursue her opportunity.
Rolling the narrative back to 1959 and shifting to Helen’s point of view, Stradal draws a sharp contrast. Helen is a rule-breaker; she’s just had her first taste of beer at 15, and she wants another one almost as much as she wants to get out of her small Minnesota hometown. Vignettes from her high school years show that Helen can be manipulative, but they also make palpable her desperation for wider horizons and her frustration that no one around her shares her dreams. “These kids were her best friends,” she thinks during one aimless night, “and they made her feel like the loneliest girl in the universe.” At Macalester College, she sets her sights on Orval Blotz, whose desire to revive his family’s brewery business fits nicely with her plans to make beer and get rich. Orval has the brewing equipment but no money; they will have to raise that themselves. Helen is close to her father, and this section closes with her forming the germ of the idea that will lead to the sisters’ estrangement.
Stradal skillfully develops his story in a nonlinear fashion, moving forward from 2003 in chapters seen through the eyes of Edith and her granddaughter Diana, but interspersing episodes from Helen’s development of Blotz Special Light beer in the 1970s, through its huge success then decline in the early 2000s after craft beers with more flavor and prestige enter the market. It’s a shrewd strategy. Providing Helen’s perspective humanizes her without whitewashing her behavior, and as the years go by, we see the emotional price she has paid for “only ever do[ing] what’s good for Helen.” Edith, by contrast, makes friends wherever she goes, as she struggles to support herself and Diana after the girl’s parents are killed in a car crash. Her granddaughter is a welcome third protagonist, blending Helen’s tough-minded outlook on life and Edith’s gift for connecting with others.
Diana is smart and angry about the hard knocks that life keeps dealing her hard-working grandmother. “Do you know what I have to do now, just to help me and my grandma get by?” she asks a nice but clueless classmate who wonders why someone with a perfect PSAT score isn’t planning to go to college. She doesn’t tell him, because what she’s doing is stealing expensive tools from rich people’s garages and selling them online, so she can help pay the bills Edith’s two part-time jobs and her after-school gig at a coffee shop never quite cover. “Two jobs. That’s a decent living isn’t it?” says a man who catches her lifting his tools. “I can see how it would comfort you to believe that,” she shoots back.
Intrigued by her feistiness, Frank Schabert decides that instead of turning Diana in, he’ll hire her as a janitor at his brewery. It’s a blatant setup for Diana to eventually make beer herself, with all the concomitant possibilities for resolution of the family drama, but this authorial license is forgivable, because the novel is so rich and satisfying. Characterizations are pleasingly three-dimensional. Edith, for example, is by no means a simpering goody-two-shoes; she is quite stubborn and often judgmental, though too well-mannered to let anyone see it. There’s a good deal of tart humor, including a customer from hell at Diana’s brand-new brewery and a portrait of craft beer nerds overly eager to share their knowledge: “A few of them were even interesting, briefly.” The zingers don’t disguise Stradal’s fundamentally optimistic view of human nature, a belief that people can change and virtue can be rewarded, at least sometimes. This generous spirit makes “The Lager Queen of Minnesota” a pleasure to read and the perfect pick-me-up on a hot summer day.
Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”
The Lager Queen of Minnesota
Pamela Dorman/Viking. 354 pp. $26.00