It is impossible to escape the past. There are a hundred quiet reminders of this in Louise Erdrich's lyrical new novel, THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB: the weight of the butcher knives that help pay Fidelis's way to America; the stain that cannot be scrubbed out of the bed he shares with his first wife, Eva; the town drunk father of Eva's best friend, Delphine, who cannot stay off the sauce; and the physical scars from World War I on Delphine's friend Cyprian, which don't compare to the emotional ones.
Erdrich's book examines them all and, through her two strong heroines, drives to one conclusion. No matter where you come from, you must always move forward --- you must remember the past without becoming crippled by it. This is certainly a point close to Erdrich's heart. After all, her real-life husband killed himself in the midst of a sexual abuse investigation several years ago. If anyone knows how to impart these lessons, it's this half-German, half-Native American author.
The story chronicles two very different women and their eventual intersection. The German Eva marries the butcher Fidelis after World War I. Fidelis, an expert sniper, was best friends with Eva's fiancé --- killed during the war --- and the two soon embark for a fresh start in America. They settle in Argus, North Dakota, a town well known to Erdrich fans. Meanwhile, we are introduced to Delphine, daughter of the drunken Roy, mother unknown. Delphine returns to town after running away with Cyprian, a mysterious half-French, half-Indian balancer with a sexual identity crisis. She and Cyprian settle into normal Argus life once more --- as normal as life can be after discovering three bodies in your father's cellar and your supposed boyfriend's preference for men.
Eva and Delphine form a deep friendship despite a limited time together; it's not giving anything away to reveal that Eva dies early of cancer. How Delphine deals with her pain and helps her friend's family of four sons and Fidelis survive becomes the focus of the book.
Erdrich tells wonderful stories and sketches intimate pictures of her decidedly non-stock characters. Everyone has a unique identity and unique emotions. All of them, from the town's other butcher to the sheriff to the mortician, are intriguing. It's so rare to encounter a book without a clichéd character --- that's reason enough to love this novel.
But there are other reasons, too. History books can't compare to this picture of early 20th-century life. The book fleshes out the personal aspects of both world wars, the horrors of which are too often obscured by the more recent Vietnam War. The melding of so many new and old world events proves fascinating. And the symbolism of the Master Butchers Singing Club itself will fuel a thousand book group discussions.
The book's one true fault is the lack of palpable tension between the two characters who are supposed to have it --- Fidelis and Delphine. The untapped passion that supposedly exists between them never climbs above lukewarm. Since Erdrich presents everything else so deliberately, perhaps this is more calculated than it comes off; whatever the reason, it doesn't inhibit the storyline.
THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB presents a fully realized world with morally complex characters and very few certainties. Very few trips are as interesting as those to Argus, N.D.
Reviewed by Toni Fitzgerald on January 22, 2011
The Master Butchers Singing Club