Poignant in the mysteries it evokes and patient with the questions it leaves unanswered, The Master Butchers Singing Club is a resonant work in which songs -- yes, songs, for early on Fidelis forms among the men of Argus the book's eponymous singing club -- become a bridge, a benediction, to the other side. "How close the dead are," Step-and-a-Half reflects. "One song away from the living." It is a sentiment that haunts these pages.The Los Angeles Times
Fourteen years ago, pregnant with my only child, I sat on a couch in a quiet room and fell under the spell of Louise Erdrich. Fell under the spell of Love Medicine and The Beet Queen, under the spell of stories that firmly and credibly established characters and voices that I had never encountered before. Here was a dirty, fictional place, located somewhere along the Minnesota–North Dakota border. Here was a town full of harsh wind and the smell of raw meat, full of the high dramaand sometimes the preposterous but always delightful melodramaof her noisy cast of characters. I didn't want to be anywhere but the made-up Erdrich world that spanned so many generations. It was more alive than the lackluster town that lay beyond my window.
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.
Erdrich's quiet, gentle voice is so soft, it's as if she's carefully reading a bedtime story. Yet this novel would not put anyone to sleep. Woven with intrigue, romance, death, sex and humor, it's an emotionally complex tale of European immigrants who have settled in the fictional town of Erdrich's previous novels, Argus, N.Dak. Bordering on magical realism, this marvelous yarn introduces a world of rich, expansive imagery and an abundance of memorably compelling characters. There's Delphine, who acts as a human table for her lover, Cyprian, a lesbian Ojibwa balancing artist. Delphine cares for her father, Roy, an alcoholic accused of neglectfully murdering an entire family. And then there's Fidelis, a former sniper for the German army who is now the singing butcher of the title. Although some breaks in cadence occur throughout the reading-it seems almost as if Erdrich is seeing the material for the first time-her soft style gradually blends with the story and, rather than seeming inappropriate, becomes invisible. Simultaneous release with the HarperCollins hardcover (Forecasts, Dec. 23, 2002). (Feb.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
In a richly constructed and descriptive narrative, World War I veteran Fidelis Waldvogel moves from Germany with a suitcase full of sausages and a set of butcher's knives to Argus, ND, after marrying the widow of his best friend. Combining mystery, romance, and social commentary, Erdrich's novel traces Fidelis's life with Eva and their four sons as it entangles with that of Delphine Watzka in an exploration of love, loss, sacrifice, and strength. The novel starts slowly, but the author, reading her own work, eventually creates a full cast of major and minor characters who are charmingly flawed and ultimately unforgettable. Highly recommended.-Joyce Kessel, Villa Maria Coll., Buffalo, NY Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
The New York Times
The novel is more naturalistic and more conventional that the author's earlier Argus stories -- fewer excursions into magical realism, fewer flights of fancy -- but every bit as emotionally resonant. Through the prism of one family's tangled history, Ms. Erdrich gives us an indelible glimpse of the American dream and the disappointments that can gather in its wake. Michiko Kakutani
The tensions between stoical endurance and the frailty of human connection, as delineated in Erdrich's almost unimaginably rich eighth novel: a panoramic exploration of "a world where butchers sing like angels."
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
“Louise Erdrich hits every note in THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB”
Los Angeles Times Book Review
“[A] magnificent tale … poignant in the mysteries it evokes and patient with the questions is leaves unanswered.”
“Erdrich is an abundantly gifted storyteller, with a penchant for meticulous detail and tremendous empathy for her characters.”
Washington Post Book World
“An enrapturing plunge into the depths of the human heart.”
Kansas City Star
“A brilliantly layered look at war’s costs …Daring, graceful, comprehending and, rooted in the great plains, uniquely American.”
“Grand and generous fiction… Erdrich’s most sweeping and ambitious yet.”
“A substantial, beautifully composed, confident work of art … both expansive in its reach and intimate in its intense focus.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Lush and stark … employing vivid imagery, deft description and dialogue that flows … Stunning language.”
“Appropriately grim and thoughtful, THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB is also full of tenderness and life … Marvelous.”
“THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB can surely be cast as the most wrenching and wise of Erdrich’s nine novels.”
“[A] masterpiece… Erdrich never hits a false note.”
“Louise Erdrich’s rousing and radiant new novel THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB is all kinds of lovely.”
“Miraculous …[Erdrich is] at the peak of powers as a writer … Her work is as melodious as ever.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“The Master Butchers Singing Club reveals on of our finest writers at the peak of her considerable powers.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Rich and vibrant …Magnificent.”
Denver Rocky Mountain News
“Delphine, the book’s central figure, is Erdrich’s most finely wrought and compelling character.”
“Satisfying and life-affirming.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Each moment and its particulars dazzles … Fidelis and firm-bellied Delphine and the rest [of the characters] are masterworks.”
“[THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB] is marked by moments of true creative genius, exquisitely imagined and masterfully drawn.”
“Not since Ricard Russo’s 2001 novel EMPIRE FALLS ... have I enjoyed the company of such memorable characters.”
"A substantial, beautifully composed, confident work of art … both expansive in its reach and intimate in its intense focus."
Read an Excerpt
The Master Butchers Singing Club
The Last Link
Fidelis walked home from the great war in twelve days and slept thirty-eight hours once he crawled into his childhood bed. When he woke in Germany in late November of the year 1918, he was only a few centimeters away from becoming French on Clemenceau and Wilson's redrawn map, a fact that mattered nothing compared to what there might be to eat. He pushed aside the white eiderdown that his mother had aired and restuffed every spring since he was six years old. Although she had tried with repeated scrubbings to remove from its cover the stains of a bloody nose he'd suffered at thirteen, the faint spot was still there, faded to a pale tea-brown and shaped like a jagged nest. He smelled food cooking -- just a paltry steam but enough to inspire optimism. Potatoes maybe. A bit of soft cheese. An egg? He hoped for an egg. The bed was commodious, soft, and after his many strange and miserable beds of the past three years, it was of such perfect comfort that he'd shuddered when first lying down. Fidelis had fallen asleep to the sound of his mother's quiet, full, joyous weeping. He thought he still heard her now, but it was the sunlight. The light pouring through the curtains made a liquid sound, he thought, an emotional and female sound as it moved across the ivory wall.
After a while he decided that he heard the light because he was clean. Disorientingly clean. Two nights ago, before he'd entered the house, he begged to bathe in a washtub out in the tiny roofed courtyard, beneath the grape arbor. They built a fire to warm the water. His sister, Maria Theresa, picked the lice from his hair and his father brought fresh clothing. In order to endure all that the war necessitated, including his own filth, Fidelis had shut down his senses. As he opened to the world again, everything around him was distressingly intense and all things were possessed of feeling, alive, as in a powerful dream.
Quietness reverberated in his head. Ordinary sounds, people outside in the streets, seemed marvelous as the chatter of rare monkeys. A thrill of delight crashed through him. Even to put on his clean and vermin-free clothing was a task so full of meaning that the fastening of his grandfather's gold boar's-head cuff-links nearly made him weep. Breathing low, he collected himself, and stilled his tears with the power of his quietness. Ever since he was a child, when sorrow had come down upon him, he'd breathed lightly and gone motionless. As a young soldier, he'd known from the first that in his talent for stillness lay the key to his survival. It had carried him through the war as a pitifully green recruit of whom it was soon discovered that, from a sniping post, he could drill a man's eye at 100 meters and make three of five shots. Now that he was home, he understood, he must still be vigilant. Memories would creep up on him, emotions sabotage his thinking brain. To come alive after dying to himself was dangerous. There was far too much to feel, so he must seek, he thought, only shallow sensations. Now he tried to adjust. He must slowly awaken even to this childhood room he knew so well.
He sat down at the edge of the bed. On a thick shelf set into the wall, his books stood in lines, or stacked as he'd left them, marked with thin strips of paper. For a time, though his occupation was assured, he'd cherished the vision of himself as a poet. Therefore his shelves were stacked with volumes of his heroes, Goethe, Heine, Rilke, and even Trakl, hidden behind the others. He looked at them now with dull curiosity. How could he ever have cared what such men said? What did their words matter? His childhood history was also in this room, his toy soldiers still arranged on the sill. And his young man's pride: his diplomas and his guild papers framed on the wall. These things did matter. These papers represented his future. His survival. In the closet, his bleached, starched, and pressed white shirts hung ready to embrace him. His polished shoes waited on the shelf beneath for the old Fidelis to put his feet into them. Gingerly, Fidelis tried to slide his feet into the open maws of the stiff shoes, but they wouldn't go. His feet were swollen, tender from frostbite, peeling, painful. Only his hobnailed boots fit, and they were green inside and stank of rot.
Slowly, he turned to contemplate the day. His bedroom window was a long, golden rectangle. He rose and opened the window, using the ram's-horn curl of its handle, and looked out, over Ludwigsruhe's slow, brown river, over the roofs and dead late-fall gardens on its opposite bank, across a patchwork of tender, gray fields, and then a tiny complex of roofs and chimneys beyond. Somewhere in that next town's maze lived the woman he had never met before, but had promised to visit. He found himself thinking about her with a complex intensity. His thoughts formed questions. What was she doing now? Had she a garden? Was she gathering the final few dusty potatoes from a small, raised, straw-covered berm? Was she hanging out her laundry fresh and white on a piece of icy rope? Was she talking, over tea, to her sister, her mother? Was she singing to herself? And his own presence, what he had promised to tell her. How could he go through with it, and also, how could he not?
The Master Butchers Singing Club. Copyright © by Louise Erdrich. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Eva Kalb, 17 Eulenstrasse. Fidelis stood before the blond-brick walkway, frowning at the frail cast-iron arbor that marked the entrance. The ironwork was threaded with the tough overgrowth of climbing rose stalks ...