Saturday, April 9, 2011

"The Master Butchers Singing Club" by Louise Erdrich

I once came upon a friend of mine, quite distraught.  "There are so many books to read," he said when I asked what was wrong.  "And I'm only going to live sixty or seventy more years."  That's how I feel sometimes.

One afternoon I was standing outside the local adult center, talking to my friend and fellow writer, Marla Gassner, about books.  She's a creative, and tires easily of the mundane.  "I want magic," she always says.  Not wizards and time travel and dragons, per se, but magic.  She was telling me about a book by Louise Erdrich, when a man walked past, stopped, turned.

"Are you talking about The Master Butchers Singing Club?" he asked.  Then they were off, dropping superlatives right and left.  He was a scholar of literature, and this novel I'd never heard of was one of his favorites.  Fifteen minutes and several books later, he bid us good-bye, leaving Marla and I to wonder about coincidence and fate.  I decided I'd better read a novel that came so highly recommended.

It's a strange book.  Historical fiction with a faint flavor of mystic realism, the story takes place between the wars, part in Germany, but mostly in North Dakota.  It's not really a page turner, and I can't summarize the plot for you in a quick, edgy, 20-word hook.  But the writing is amazing, and on the strength of her lyrical prose alone, I kept reading, kept wondering why I liked it so much.  Magic, Marla would say.

The characters all have intriguing backgrounds.  Delphine and Cyprian are vaudeville performers.  He balances himself and various chairs and random props on her stomach.  She's in love with him, but he's a closet homosexual.  They still love each other in a platonic way, and pretend to be married when they go back to her hometown and discover that her perennially drunken father has three dead people locked accidentally in his cellar, people whose screams he was too drunk to hear. 

There's Fidelis, the German immigrant butcher who pays his passage in fine sausage, who takes pride in his work, and struggles with the memories of his time as an ace sniper in the German army.  Eva, his gentle, organized, multi-talented wife, takes Delphine under her wing, then slowly begins to die. 

Delphine's childhood best friend, who spends much of her energy avoiding the advances of the sheriff, is an undertaker, and treats the dead like canvases on which she applies her arts. 

Erdrich peoples her story with wanderers, hoarders, sanctimonious old maids, and a whole cast of other unusual characters, most of whom she manages to make wonderfully human—flawed but sympathetic. 

Though the narrative sometimes bogs down in detail, these details are written so beautifully that I didn't mind much.  One of the romances feels a little underplayed, and the end is unclear in parts, but the twists keep it interesting, and the characters are spectacularly crafted. 

Louise Erdrich's The Master Butchers Singing Club is one of those books that stays with you long after you read the last word.   

My rating:  4

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