The Master Butchers Singing Club
By Louise Erdrich (HarperCollins, $25.95, 388 pp.)
Because Native Americans maintain a subtle presence on the contemporary writing scene, the mainstream success of novelist Louise Erdrich feels a bit like literary infiltration. Executing a quiet coup in the publishing industry, she’s injected the American Indian voice onto best-seller charts and short lists with books like Tracks, Love Medicine and The Bingo Palace. Over the course of seven interconnected novels, Erdrich, a North Dakota native of German-American and Ojibwe descent, has followed her mixed lineage back and forth between the Anglo and Indian worlds, exploring both white and Native ways while testing the limits of storytelling.
Around a cast of tightly intertwined Midwestern charactersworking-class Scandinavians, crazy Catholic missionaries and stubbornly unassimilated IndiansErdrich has created a rich mythology written with risk. In typical fashion, her 2001 novel The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, a National Book Award nominee, extended but never exceeded the bounds of believable narrative by revealing that a priest who’d tended an Ojibwe tribe for nearly a century was really a woman. Like many of the author’s narratives, this one had a spiritual dimension, a sense that something magical shimmered beneath the surface of the visible world.
With novels that pit the actual against the ethereal, the logical against the irrational, Erdricha practitioner of magic realism who isn’t afraid to use ghosts in her fictionhas given substance to the sublime, a voice to the divine. In light of her previous work, her new book The Master Butchers Singing Club is something of a departure. Firmly plotted, less mystical, more literal, the narrative represents an enlargement of the author’s vision as she explores the German side of her ancestry. Like most of her novels, this one is set in the imaginary town of Argus, N.D., but the focus here is on the community’s white population rather than its Indian element.
Stoic and reserved, Fidelis Waldvogel, a German butcher based loosely on Erdrich’s grandfather, comes home from World War I, marries the fiancée of his dead best friend and sets off for America. His motivation? A modern-day miracle, a specimen of efficiency and order, the American dream incarnate: a slice of white bread. Factory-produced, with its uniform perfection, a loaf sent from the States becomes the bait that lures Fidelis to the land of plenty. And the bread (“shaped with a precision that could only be the work of fanatics,” Fidelis thinks) is but an appetizer in what proves to be a multi-course narrativea novel that turns eating into a transformative ritual, depicting the preparing and sharing of meals as a means of communal healing.
Fidelis gets his start selling homemade sausages in a New York City train station, but soon heads west, stopping in Argus, where he opens a butcher shop, then sends for his new wife Eva, who has given birth to the son of her dead fiancé. Feeding the town enables the couple to become acquainted with Argus society, prompting Fidelispossessor of a pristine and gentle tenorto start an informal choral group for the men of the community. A motley and occasionally rowdy assemblage, the club includes a bank loan officer, a bootlegger and a rival butcher. Like Fidelis, who slaughters animals for a living but sings patriotic pieces and German airs with the unfailing authority of a maestro, each man comes with his own set of contradictions. Yet, despite their differences, they achieve a wonderful harmony.
The Waldvogels’ story soon converges with that of Delphine Watzka, a strong-willed vaudeville performer and Argus native who returns to town after a long absence, accompanied by her boyfriend Cyprian. An Ojibwe Indian and acrobat who is also, as Delphine has recently discovered, a homosexual, Cyprian, like many of the characters here, is desperately trying to fit the role society has assigned himthat of potential husband and providerand failing miserably. His shortcomings leave Delphine open to new romantic prospects, namely Fidelis, for whom she feels a strange attraction. But it’s a magnetism she nobly ignores as she befriends the overworked Eva, cooking and caring for her when the woman falls ill.
Meanwhile, Erdrich thickens the plot with peripheral characters like Delphine’s father, Roy, an irremediable alcoholic with a heart of gold, who becomes implicated in the murder of the Chavers family when their bodies are found in his basement. And then there is pushy Sheriff Hock, who fancies Clarisse, the town’s pretty morticianso much so that he tries to blackmail her into marriage. Argus’ resident crazy lady, an abrasive woman named Step-and-a-Half, walks the streets with a comical stride and harbors an important secret about Delphine. There’s also the accident-prone Waldvogel kids, and nosy Tante, Fidelis’ sister, who is forever threatening to pack her nephews off to the homeland, where they can receive a proper German upbringing.
But the real story here lies in Delphine’s struggle to find herself. As the book’s numerous plot lines converge, it becomes clear that Erdrich has placed her at the center of the novel as a testament to the resiliency and fortitude of womanhood. In a wonderful scene that occurs during her vaudeville days, Delphine functions literally as a human table, bending over backward as Cyprian balances a stack of chairs, and then himself, on top of her rock-hard stomach. Eventually, both the chairs and Cyprian come tumbling, while Delphine emerges from the stunt unscatheda telling sequence that reinforces her foundational role in the novel, her remarkable ability to support and sustain others, especially men. “It would be that way all her life,” Erdrich writes of her heroine, “disasters falling like chairs all around her, falling so close they disarranged her hair, but not touching her.”
As usual, Erdrich unfolds an authentic world before the reader, offering through the singular spirit of its inhabitants a larger reflection of humanity. If The Master Butchers Singing Club is a less ambitious offering from the author, a narrative that hews closer to the tried-and-true traditions of storytelling, it is nevertheless complex and appealing, lyrical and luminous, written with Erdrich’s trademark compassion. What the book does best is probe the human dialectic, creating from an age-old system of oppositesbirths and deaths, women and men, murderers and nurturersa marvelous synthesis. In the flux and flow of life, Erdrich finds a kind of order that during the novel’s final chapter becomes a miraculous music, a swirl of songs “that come from the same place and go back to a time when only the stones howled.” It’s a world that only she could’ve created, where a slaughterhouse serves as a cathedral and “butchers sing like angels.”
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