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The Lager Queen of Minnesota: A Novel

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9780399563058: The Lager Queen of Minnesota: A Novel
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A National Bestseller!

The perfect pick-me-up on a hot summer day. 
—Washington Post

 
“[A] charmer of a tale. . . Warm, witty and--like any good craft beer--complex, the saga delivers a subtly feminist and wholly life-affirming message.”
—People Magazine
 
A novel of family, Midwestern values, hard work, fate and the secrets of making a world-class beer, from the bestselling author of Kitchens of the Great Midwest

Two sisters, one farm. A family is split when their father leaves their shared inheritance entirely to Helen, his younger daughter. Despite baking award-winning pies at the local nursing home, her older sister, Edith, struggles to make what most people would call a living. So she can't help wondering what her life would have been like with even a portion of the farm money her sister kept for herself.

With the proceeds from the farm, Helen builds one of the most successful light breweries in the country, and makes their company motto ubiquitous: "Drink lots. It's Blotz." Where Edith has a heart as big as Minnesota, Helen's is as rigid as a steel keg. Yet one day, Helen will find she needs some help herself, and she could find a potential savior close to home. . . if it's not too late.

Meanwhile, Edith's granddaughter, Diana, grows up knowing that the real world requires a tougher constitution than her grandmother possesses. She earns a shot at learning the IPA business from the ground up--will that change their fortunes forever, and perhaps reunite her splintered family?

Here we meet a cast of lovable, funny, quintessentially American characters eager to make their mark in a world that's often stacked against them. In this deeply affecting family saga, resolution can take generations, but when it finally comes, we're surprised, moved, and delighted.

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About the Author:

J. Ryan Stradal is the author of New York Times bestseller Kitchens of the Great Midwest and national bestseller The Lager Queen of Minnesota. His writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Granta, The Rumpus, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other places. His debut, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, won the American Booksellers Association Indie's Choice Award for Adult Debut Book of the Year, the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association award for fiction, and the Midwest Booksellers Choice Award for debut fiction. Born and raised in Minnesota, he now lives in Los Angeles.

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Edith, 2003

It was July 5, 2003, and Edith Magnusson's day hadn't been too bad, so far. She'd just taken a strawberry-rhubarb pie from the oven, and was looking for her favorite tea towel, when she saw a grasshopper on the white trim of the windowsill. She didn't like the idea of it sitting there, vulnerable, so she gently poked at the bug with the handle of a wooden spoon. As she'd hoped, it leapt into the yard, and vanished into safety. She felt herself exhale.

Then, she felt terrible. Maybe it just wanted a little vacation somewhere different, and she came along and ruined everything. Edith, for one, never once had been anywhere different, or ever truly had a break of any kind. Then again, she'd never intended to take one. Things were pretty decent where she was, and she didn't ever see the point of bellyaching about the things she couldn't change, especially in a world that never once ran a want ad looking for a complainer.

After all, she had a good job at St. Anthony-Waterside Nursing Home six blocks from her rented two-bedroom rambler in the central Minnesota town of New Stockholm. Edith also had her husband, Stanley, who at that moment was in a Peterbilt somewhere in South Dakota. She had an adult son, Eugene, who was just starting out as an independent distributor for an interesting company called LifeWell, which apparently sold quality household products direct to customers at low prices. She also had an adult daughter, Colleen, who'd gone to college, and even though she had to drop out, had done OK for herself. She married a handyman named Mark, who was a kind man, even if he didn't go to church. They were raising Edith's sole grandchild, a smart, curious girl named Diana, who was somehow almost a teenager already.

If all this wasn't everything a person needed, she didn't know what would be. It was true that she missed the farm where she grew up, and missed her parents for one reason and her sister for another reason, but it was no use dwelling on people and things that were in the past.

Edith was only sixty-four years old, but if she died right then, she would've felt the most important things a Minnesotan, woman or man, can feel at the end of their lives. She'd done what she could, and she was of use. She helped.

But life wasn't done with her yet, and before long she'd come to regard everything that happened before July 5, 2003, like it was all just a pleasant song in an elevator. When the music stopped, the doors opened, and the light first fell in, it was in the form of her boss, a man she liked, running down the hallway at work, smiling, shouting her name, and waving a piece of newspaper in the air like a child.

 

Edith had worked as a dietary aide in the nursing home's kitchen for thirty-seven years. Her coworkers were mostly hardworking, exhausted, and kind. The hallways smelled like baby powder sprinkled onto boiled green beans, which over the years had become kind of pleasant. Also, everyone agreed that the new boss, Brendan Fitzgerald, who had the benign charisma and calm authority of a TV meteorologist, was the best administrator theyŐd ever had. He also chain-smoked and only referred to residents by their room number, but at least he was always glad to see Edith, and that day he was the happiest she'd ever seen him since he won fifty bucks playing pull tabs.

Brendan, his slick black Reagan hair gleaming under the fluorescent lights, held out a copy of Twin City Talker, one of those hip newspapers for hip city people. Edith had flipped through an issue once, twenty years ago, and thought it was kind of different, so she never read it again. food issue, this cover read, and Brendan tore it open to a page somewhere in the middle.

"Did you hear about this?" he asked her.

 

She saw a list with the heading, best pies.

                1. Betty's Pies, Two Harbors

                2. Keys Cafe and Bakery, St. Paul

                3. St. Anthony-Waterside Nursing Home, New Stockholm

"Our nursing home has the third-best pie in Minnesota," he said, shaking the paper for emphasis.

"Well, that's bizarre," Edith said.

"No, it's not. It's because of number eight's granddaughter. You've seen her here, with the pink hair," Brendan said, pointing to the name in the byline. "That's her. Ellen Jones. Staff food critic!"

"Neat. Well, I'd better get back to the kitchen," Edith said.

"I'm going to get it framed and put in the lobby," Brendan shouted. "That's something, Edith! Third-best pie, in the whole entire state!"

Edith had been baking her own pies at work since her first year there, when she noticed that the apple cobbler-purchased pre-made from a contracted vendor-came back in unusually high quantities, some completely untouched, most just one or two bites smaller, some with one bite missing and a moist chunk of the stuff elsewhere on the plate. One resident, a wonderful old stick-in-the-mud named Donald Gustafson, had sent it back with a note reading make it stop.

When you see a man falling off a ladder above you, Edith believed, you don't envision your arms breaking. You just hold them out.

 

Had she known that this decision would one day, decades later, change everything she loved about her life, she still would have done it, because the kitchen at St. Anthony-Waterside was responsible for the last desserts that the residents would likely ever have. If it were up to her, the people in this building would at least have the texture, the taste, or even just the smells of homemade pie once or twice a week, as heaven weaned them from the senses of this world. ItŐs the least a dang person can do.

And, as it turned out, it was indeed up to her. With the help of a few extra dollars from Brendan and the folks in charge before him (to help subsidize the ingredients) she'd been serving her homemade pies year-round for almost forty years now. Most residents felt that they were pretty decent, if a tad on the sweet side, not that they were complaining.

Edith turned her back to Brendan. "Well, let's just hope it blows over."

"Let's hope it doesn't blow over! This is awesome! You should be proud!"

Brendan still wasn't married and didn't have kids, and as a man in his sixties, at least one of those two things probably was never going to happen, so more than ever, he lived for his job. This was only an unfortunate scenario for Edith when it made her life more complicated, like now.

 

Of course, Edith had been in the paper before. The New Stockholm Explainer ran pieces on Edith every eight years or so, with a headline that was something like pie lady still serving slices, along with a picture that always made her look confused and old. She didnŐt read the articles and never even kept copies for herself. When the phone rang at home around lunchtime the following day, she knew it would be Stanley, and she didnŐt even think sheŐd mention it to him.

The man on the other end of the phone wasn't Stanley, though, it was his boss, The Other Tom Clyde, and she decided that she wouldn't mention it to him either.

"Edith," Mr. Clyde said. "There's been an accident. Now, first, your husband's OK, he just has a concussion."

She knew he was OK. They'd been married for almost forty-four years exactly and she'd know it if he wasn't alive somewhere. They could have sent him to Pluto and she'd know if he made it. But she also knew that this could happen sometime, and soon.

"What did he do now, Mr. Clyde?"

"Well, he drove a truckload of frozen hamburgers into the front of a Hardee's in Sioux Falls. Normally they like their deliveries in the back, so I'm told." Mr. Clyde shared his cousin Big Tom Clyde's dry sense of humor.

"Was anyone hurt?"

"No, thankfully. There's some trash cans and picnic tables that wished they hadn't met your husband's truck, but that's about it." Mr. Clyde sounded a little sad. "I gotta be honest, I think he's hauled his last load, ma'am."

"Well, send him on home," she told him, said good-bye, and hung up the phone.

It was noon, and outside, a basketball belonging to the neighbor kids tumbled into her yard, reminding her of high school. A mayfly beat its papery body against the screen door, delighted to be anywhere. And now, Edith was alone in her home kitchen, slicing fruit, and waiting for her life to change, once again.

 

The next day, she took Stanley to see Dr. Nebel. En route, Stanley proudly announced that he'd been to Dr. Nebel only once the last five years, as if his ignorance was proof of his perfect health. Only once, despite the fact that they were members of the same Elks Club. Who knows how they talked there, but in his small, simple office, Dr. Nebel did not BS around with her husband. "Early onset" was the only term he may have used purely out of kindness. While Stanley was sixty-five, it's always too early for something like this, for both of them. He'd miss the pride heŐd felt in his ability to fix his own truck, he'd miss his CB handle-Charlie Brown, which he'd earned because of his perfectly round bald head-and he'd miss the smiling faces he'd gotten to know in places like Casper, Pierre, and Grand Junction.

Stanley would now be home every day, and although his Social Security wouldn't be nearly as much as his paycheck was, with some trimming, they'd get by, if no emergencies or surprises happened. They used to live next door to a fireman who said that he prayed every night for tomorrow to be boring, and she knew exactly how he felt.

That evening at St. Anthony-Waterside, there were four guests in the dining room, about three more than usual for a weekday, but nothing alarming. It simply meant that she had to cut both of the pies she'd made into ten slices, which she hated to do.

Clarence Jones in #8 was one of the residents who had regular guests. His granddaughter Mandy, a pleasant young nurse who wore her scrubs all of the time, had brought her two-year-old son, Zach. With his big eyes and slick hair, he looked like a toddler version of Ugarte from Casablanca.

"Congrats on making the list in the Talker," Mandy said, even though it was her own little sister, Ellen, who wrote it.

"I'm relieved that nobody seems to have paid it any attention," Edith replied, and turned to Clarence, eager to change the subject. "Isn't it good to see your great-grandson?"

"The kid's a commie pinko," Clarence frowned. He was a tad less pleasant than most of the other residents, but God likes all kinds, and Edith sure tried to as well.

"My grandpa's just mad because he gave my son a bag of gumdrops, and Zach gave them all away already," said Mandy.

"These schmucks don't need 'em. And you know what else is a problem?" Clarence asked, now staring at Edith. "Your slices are getting too small. If I'm going to keep living, I want bigger servings of pie."

"Same," said Amelia Burch, who, at ninety-nine, was the oldest person in the entire county, and so far as Edith was aware, still ate everything, except for pork, white bread, and French fries.

"I'll see what I can do," Edith said, looking over the shining, empty dessert plates in the dining room.

 

The next day, Edith realized that she was running low on pie ingredients quicker than usual; she knew she should build up the nerve to ask Brendan for more again, but first, she had to demonstrate that sheŐd done everything she could with what she had. Anyway, their twelve-year-old granddaughter, Diana, would be coming up from Hastings that weekend, so Edith had something more pressing to prepare for. It was a tradition that every year, Diana spent a week with her grandparents right before school started. The difference now is that Stanley would be home with her all day, every day, for the first time ever.

From the kitchen, she saw her husband shuffle toward the door, and pull it open with the brisk, blind excitement of a little kid on Christmas.

"I just thought I heard a car," he said, and took a moment to stare out into the empty driveway, as if he could will Colleen's old blue Dodge Omni into materializing.

 

When Diana finally arrived, Stanley took her out for Shirley Temples at the Elks Club, bought slices of cheddar cheese pizza at Sven Larsen's new restaurant, The Pizza Man, and over dinner, suggested that they visit that buggy oxbow lake near St. Anthony-Waterside and feed the ducks, if she hadn't already outgrown that kind of thing.

"No, I still like ducks, Grandpa," Diana said, and even if she was indulging them, it was kind of her to extend her childhood for their benefit. When she was little, she was perfectly happy just playing with a pie tin full of orphaned keys and dice, or standing in the hall, staring at the painting of the farmhouse with a different family member in each window, coming up with names for each one. Those days were long gone. Now, it was clear that the highlight of her visit was when she and Stanley went to the video store.

Stanley liked sci-fi, and Diana was evidently now into emotional adult dramas, so, judging by the titles on the spines of the DVD boxes, this made for some unusual double features: Driving Miss Daisy and Krull. Blade Runner and Steel Magnolias. Terms of Endearment and eXistenZ. As far as Edith knew, they would watch the movies back-to-back, and would sit patiently through the other person's choice of entertainment.

Starting around that time, though, her sweet, quiet husband wasn't the same. Before the Hardee's incident, he'd seemed mostly himself, just like two or three petals had been plucked from a bouquet. After he was forced to retire, it seemed like there were entire flowers missing. And now, most of the week, he'd be taking care of their only grandchild, alone.

It could've been much worse, but there were issues. On the Tuesday of Diana's visit, he took a fresh loaf of bread out of the oven and fed it to the ducks. Later, he tried to make canned chili in a pot on the stove and forgot about it until the smoke alarm went off. On Thursday he walked Diana to George Schmidt's used car lot, where he tried to put money down on a used Cadillac Eldorado. Luckily, an employee there who knew them from church called Edith at work, and she ran over and put the kibosh on the whole thing.

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