Saturday, March 08, 2014

The Master Butcher's Singing Club by Louise Erdrich

That music in itself, whose sounds are song,
The poetry of speech.
~Lord Byron

In The Master Butcher's Singing Club Louise Erdich masterfully spins a lyrical tale, weaving a few fragments of the familiar into an amazing story that spans two continents and begins in 1918.  It takes the book's characters on their journey through two World Wars and slightly beyond into the early 1950s.  It is a tale of strength, skill, family secrecy and murder, music and love.

In Germany, an exhausted Fidelis Waldvogel returns home from fighting at the end of WWI to fulfill a promise to his dead best friend.  He has pledged to take care of Johannes' fiance Eva Kalb, whom he finds with child.  Fidelis is a strong man, both physically and in moral fiber. This powerful man has a tenderness of heart and a great capacity for love.  He marries Eva and begins dutifully raising the boy.  He also possesses the gift of a family trait, a beautiful, rich tenor voice. To provide the new family a brighter future, he travels to America with a valise containing a few personal belongings, an assortment of finest quality handmade sausages and his collection of knives to serve him in his trade as a butcher - also a family tradition.  Once in the states, selling the sausages takes him as far as Argus, North Dakota where he secures a job with a local butcher.  With the devoted help of Eva, he eventually saves enough money to start his own business.

Delphine Watzka has been a traveler for many years and returns to Argus with her companion Cyprian Lazarre.  The two have a small sum of money they have saved from working as traveling performers with a balancing act.  Argus does not hold fond memories for Delphine.  Upon her return she discovers her father Roy living in a drunken state, their home in shambles.  As she and Cyprian begin to work uncovering the layers of filth from the home, they discover the decaying bodies of a small family trapped in the basement.  In reporting the crime does she endanger her father's freedom?  Is he connected to their death? His drunkenness has clouded his recollection of facts but he maintains his innocence.

Having been ordered to stay in town by Sheriff Hock, Delphine seeks work. The Waldvogels now have a steady business in their own butcher shop and four boys.  Delphine is candid about the circumstances as to why she must remain in Argus and Eva hires her.  In working closely together the two become devoted friends.  This sets the stage for the story that unfolds.

Secrets abound.  Who is the murdered family in Roy Watzka's basement and how does a red spangled dress relate to the crime?  What is the truth about Delphine and Cyprian's relationship?  Not to mention the heartache she's endured her whole life, wondering what had happened the mother she has never known - a mystery that looms large to her.  What will become of the Waldvogels when Eva becomes ill?

Louise Erdrich's grandfather's photograph graces the front cover of the book that is in our system.  As she states, this is a work of fiction but this tale of German American immigrants and the Native Americans of that area, bespeaks her own heritage.  It has served her well as inspiration for such a wonderful tale.  The gift of her voice, though not conveyed through song, is heard loud and clear with the same poetry of words used in her storytelling.

Other books by Erdrich that you might enjoy are The Plague of Doves, set in the off reservation town of Pluto, North Dakota and The Last Report of Miracles at Little No Horse, another equally compelling tale of the secret life of Father Damien Modeste.

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