Erdrich is a North Dakota native and a mixed blood enrolled in the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, whose previous works include the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning “Love Medicine,“ and the National Book Award finalist “The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.“
She is a writer of extraordinary range and emotional depth who is seemingly unafraid of tackling the most challenging and wrenching of situations and characters, but “The Master Butchers Singing Club“ is undoubtedly her most ambitious and resonant work to date.
A story of the Old World meeting the New set against the backdrop of the bleak plains of North Dakota after WWI, Erdrich builds her tale around this question: What happens when a trained killer discovers that his true vocation is love? At the books onset, soldier Fidelis Waldvogel has just returned to his quiet German village home after surviving the war, and he has two orders of business on his agenda - to dutifully marry Eva, the pregnant widow of his best friend who was killed in action, and to start a new life in America.
In the first chapter, “The Last Link,“ we meet Fidelis and settle, along with him, into his world. Note Erdrichs lyrical attention to detail as she describes his adjustment to civilian life:
“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.“
Fidelis and Eva sets sail for America armed with about 35 cents, a suitcase full of sausages and a master butcher‘s precious set of knives that were owned by his father. They settle in Argus, North Dakota (a fictional town Erdrich readers will recognize from other novels), where Fidelis establishes an Old World meat shop and builds a home for his family. But all is not routine. He sets up a singing club whose members include the best voices in town, and more importantly, has the destiny of his life changed when he meets Delphine Watzka, who runs a struggling vaudeville show with her partner Cyprian Lazarre, a homosexual Ojibwa.
Delphine has recently returned to Argus to care for Roy, her alcoholic father. Roy‘s drinking is the least of his problems, especially with the local sheriff intent on learning how the Chavers family came to perish in Roy‘s basement. Delphine takes a job at Fidelis and Evas butcher shop, making a friend for life in Eva, with whom she feels a sense of attraction, and discovering the love of her life in Fidelis.
And thats just for starters. To reveal much more would be an incredible disservice to this richly sculpted work. Erdrich deftly weaves together the many strands of character, subplot, and theme that she introduces, and her storytelling rarely falters. More than 35 years of life in a small prairie town give her the opportunity to work with both broad and subtle brush strokes on a large canvas, and she makes the most of every opportunity, be it death, love, accidents, illness, redemption, crime, or passion, and the creation of both Fidelis and Delphine is a thing of rare beauty. This is a sweeping American saga in every regard, from a writer quite possibly working at the height of her considerable ability.