Reading J. Ryan Stradal’s latest novel, The Lager Queen of Minnesota, is like sipping a favorite, go-to beer, particularly if you like an easy-drinking lager. Crisp, clean and reliably thirst-quenching, lagers are straightforward and utterly uncomplicated, at least they appear to be on the surface. Lagers are notoriously difficult to make well. There is no place to hide flaws. And it takes time spent in the tank at a cool temperature for the flavors to develop. (That’s why most homebrewers, as well as fledgling craft breweries, make ales.) The same can be said for the characters in Stradal’s book. You think you have them all figured out, but the more you learn about them, the more complex they become.
The story begins in 1959 and concludes in 2018, a time period that traces the evolution of the American beer industry up to the craft beer boom and beyond. The story – a family drama – is told from the perspective of three women; sisters Edith & Helen Calder and Edith’s granddaughter, Diana – a scrappy, kind-hearted survivor who happens to get a perfect score on the PSAT. Dutiful Edith and her ambitious, rule-breaking sister, Helen have a serious falling out after the death of their father, a Minnesota farmer who leaves everything to Helen. Motivated and calculating, Helen wants the money to keep her husband’s legacy brewery afloat, securing the status and lifestyle she had always dreamed of.
Edith’s life was quite different. Tragedy found its way to her doorstep with heartbreaking regularity. But without any fanfare or self-pity, she accepts the cards fate has dealt her. Besides, she thinks, who would want to hear a woman’s tale of woe? A man’s sad story, she realizes intuitively, would be something the world would welcome as the first page of a great saga.
Edith bakes award-winning pies – the third best in Minnesota – for the residents of a financially strapped nursing home. Even her five minutes of fame make her self-conscious, lest she be thought of as ambitious like her scheming sister Helen. Toiling well past retirement age, she does whatever she can to keep a roof over her orphaned granddaughter’s head. Eventually, not even Edith and her cheery, can-do disposition can make ends meet. Diana secretly turns “Robin Hood” to cover their expenses. When Diana is caught stealing power tools from a man who happens to be a successful brewery owner, it’s just a matter of time before the three women confront one another in a craft brewery coming face-to-face with the consequences of a lifetime of decisions.
Author J. Ryan Stradal is a midwesterner through and through. In fact, his best-selling, debut novel is titled Kitchens of the Great Midwest. In a recent interview broadcast by National Public Radio, Stradal explained why he wrote The Lager Queen of Minnesota. In a conversation with radio personality Ari Shapiro, he explained that he wasn’t seeing the kind of strong, midwestern women who raised him portrayed well in contemporary fiction. And while doing his research, he didn’t see them playing prominent roles in the brewing industry either. That’s when he decided to create these characters and place them in a beer world he wants to see exist.
By the way, to prepare for this undertaking, Stradal visited at least 36 breweries.
If you are in the mood for an easy, but emotionally satisfying read, with a storyline that reveals what it takes to be a successful brewer, this book is for you.