I approached The Lager Queen Of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal with some trepidation. EDIWTB readers know that Kitchens Of The Great Midwest is one of my all-time favorite books, and the only book I’ve reviewed twice on this blog (here and here). How could any book, let alone Stradal’s second novel, possibly live up to the high expectations set by Kitchens? My Readerly Report co-host Nicole answered that question simply and and concisely for me on a recent episode: It couldn’t.
I decided Nicole was right, and chose to read Lager as if I’d never read Kitchens, letting it live on its own outside the shadow of its older sibling. And that’s what I am going to do with this review.
The Lager Queen of Minnesota centers on two sisters, Edith and Helen, who grow up in Minnesota in the 1960s. Edith marries early, while Helen, enthralled by beer at an early age, marries the heir to a beer company after college and vows, together with him, to turn the brewery into a famous name outside the state. Helen sells her parents’ farm when they pass away, sharing none of the inheritance with her sister. Edith lives her life modestly, and while she is content, works hard throughout her life and finds herself in her 70s, alone, supporting a granddaughter and never really catching a break. Meanwhile, Edith’s granddaughter Diana also develops the family passion for beer, and, as a teenager, launches her own craft beer label.
The Lager Queen Of Minnesota traces the ups and downs of these three women’s lives – the losses, the disappointments and the aspirations. I love that Stradal focuses on older women – a demographic so often missing from modern fiction – as well as people who work at Arby’s and can’t afford to replace cars when they break down. He infuses them with humanity and sympathy, but he has deep respect for them as well. Edith is generous but unassertive, her sister Helen is rigid and ambitious and Diana is a true blend of the two. Like another book I’ve mentioned in this review (damn it!), this one is filled with food (or drink), family and loss – three themes that Stradal handles beautifully.
I like beer a lot, though I like the kind of beer Stradal mocks throughout the book – mass-market stuff that goes down like water. I am not a craft beer person at all, and I was worried I’d be overwhelmed by talk about hops and grains and the subtleties of brewing ale. Happily, while there is a lot of beer talk, there is a lot more to Lager. And the sections about brewing are almost always about something else too, so it’s not like you’re reading a craft beer primer.
I highly recommend The Lager Queen of Minnesota. If you enjoy quieter stories about regular people with rich interior lives, sprinkled with humor, sadness and wry observations about life, then J. Ryan Stradal is your guy. I will read anything he writes.