The Master Butchers Singing Clubby Louise Erdrich
Having survived World War I, Fidelis Waldvogel returns to his quiet German village and marries the pregnant widow of his best friend, killed in action. With a suitcase full of sausages and a master butcher's precious knife set, Fidelis sets out for America. In Argus, North Dakota, he builds a business, a home for his family—which includes Eva and four… See more details below
Having survived World War I, Fidelis Waldvogel returns to his quiet German village and marries the pregnant widow of his best friend, killed in action. With a suitcase full of sausages and a master butcher's precious knife set, Fidelis sets out for America. In Argus, North Dakota, he builds a business, a home for his family—which includes Eva and four sons—and a singing club consisting of the best voices in town. When the Old World meets the New—in the person of Delphine Watzka—the great adventure of Fidelis's life begins. Delphine meets Eva and is enchanted. She meets Fidelis, and the ground trembles. These momentous encounters will determine the course of Delphine's life, and the trajectory of this brilliant novel.
Great books cast spells. Great books surge and dance and suggest their own inevitability. Erdrich has written many great books while living her famously complicated life, and lately she's been writing ever faster, producing a string of adult and young-adult novels at a blinding pace. Her latest, The Master Butchers Singing Club, returns her once more to the now familiar question of just what happens when Native-American and European cultures share the same desolate, desperate place. The book's heroes, as always, are burdened with secrets. They are blackened with disappointments and regrets. Joy is the scarcest commodity, the macabre is ever present and dreams are often not even worth dreaming. There is a corresponding weight to these pages, a heaviness that only rarely dissipates, giving the book, in places, an airless quality, a sense that this particular cast of characters may finally be too trapped inside their own overly damaged psyches.
That is not to suggest that things don't happen in The Master Butchers Singing Club, because many things do. At the heart of the story lies Fidelis Waldvogel, a trained German sniper who, upon returning from World War I, finds and marries the pregnant lover of his best friend, who was killed in action. Seeking to make a good life for Eva and her son, Fidelis journeys to the United States, takes a train across the country and settles down in Argus, North Dakota, to the hard life of a butcher. Eventually Eva and her son, Franz, join him there, overwhelming Fidelis with a feeling he finds impossible to express: "Fidelis felt the emotion of love move through his body like a great, rough, startling beast.... When a man of such strength lets himself be overcome the earth of his being shudders. He is immensely alone. Eva might have understood Fidelis then, if he'd had the courage to elaborate, but since he didn't she merely smiled into his face, kissed him and decided with a certain bravado that although there was not a damn thing of interest or value in sight, there would be."
It is as Fidelis' helpmate in the meat shop that Eva encounters Delphine Watzka, the daughter of a slovenly drunk who recently has been touring the country as a member of a two-person performance act. Argus is Delphine's home, and despite the shame that comes with being Roy Watzka's daughter, Delphine has a sturdy determinedness about her, a practical economy that invites Eva's interest and eventually binds the two women in a truly beautifuland beautifully renderedfriendship. Soon Delphine and Eva are working side by side in Fidelis' shop, overseeing the meats and the customers and keeping watch over the four sons who eventually comprise Eva and Fidelis' family. These passages contain some gorgeous writing, some truly resonant scenes.
The numerous subplots involve Delphine's gay companion, the town's female undertaker, the lusting sheriff, Roy's sordid past, Fidelis' old-maid sister, a terrible murder, a singing club, the escapades of children, World War II and a traveling woman named Step-and-a-Half. If that sounds like too much, it probably isespecially toward the end, when one senses that Erdrich is working very hard to tie up so many loose ends, to somehow jolt her readers with surprising revelations. The various subplots also interfere with the emotional development of the story; as potentially fabulous as some of these characters are, only threeEva, Delphine and the second son, Markusultimately rise above the stuff of caricature in a lasting, meaningful way.
In The Master Butchers Singing Club, Erdrich is at her finest when painting the domestic scenes between Eva and Delphine, when depicting the soul of a heartbroken boy. She is at her best when she makes her language sing, when she makes the snow fall like this: "Snow is a blessing when it softens the edges of the world, when it falls like a blanket trapping warm pockets of air. This snow was the oppositeit outlined the edges of things and made the town look meaner, bereft, merely tedious, like a mistake set down upon the earth and only half erased." Erdrich is a genuinely talented writer; she has changed the landscape of fiction forever. This novel, however, sometimes sags beneath its own weight, making this reader long for sunnier days in Argus.
It's set mostly in her familiar fictional town of Argus, North Dakota (The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, 2001, etc.), the eventual destination of Fidelis Waldvogel, a WWI veteran who makes his way from Germany to America, where he prospers as a butcher and is later joined by his wife Eva and her young son (fathered by Fidelis's best friend, fallen in battle). In a wide-ranging narrative, Erdrich counterpoints the tale of this "forest bird" (Fidelis is gifted with an incredibly beautiful singing voice) and his loved ones with the stories of several other sharply drawn figures. Foremost is Delphine, the daughter of Argus's loquacious town drunk Roy Watzka, sunk in sodden unending mourning for his late Indian wife Minnie. Or so it seems-as Delphine comes home to Argus in 1934 accompanied by Cyprian Lazarre, a half-breed (and bisexual) "balancing expert" with whom she has performed in traveling shows, and whom Delphine does and doesn't love, as her chance acquaintance with Eva Waldvogel blossoms into her greatest love: for Fidelis, who long outlives Eva, and his four sons, throughout the later war years and the devastating changes that overtake them all. Delphine is a great character (perhaps Erdrich's most openly autobiographical one?): "a damaged person, a searcher with a hopeless quest, a practical-minded woman with a streak of dismay." And she's the moral center of a sprawling anecdotal story crammed with unexpected twists and vivid secondary characters (thehapless Roy and a ubiquitous rag-picker known as Step-and-a-Half are employed to particularly telling effect), crowned by a stunningly revelatory surprise ending.
There are echoes of Steinbeck's East of Eden as well, in a thoughtful, artful, painfully moving addition to an ongoing American saga.
Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection; author tour
- HarperCollins Publishers
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