Review of THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB by LOUISE ERDRICH
After surviving World War I, German sniper Fidelis Waldvogel seeks out his best friend’s widow. His friend died in the war, leaving Eva pregnant and alone, so Fidelis marries her, and from tragedy and obligation they carve out, over time, a fierce and very genuine love. This quiet, steady conviction in each other serves them well when they leave Germany for America - where Fidelis uses his inherited butchering trade to build a business starting with nothing but some sausages.
I fell in love with Erdrich as a writer after reading one of her more recent novels THE ROUND HOUSE. From the writing to the characters to the plot, I savored nearly every detail of that book with relish. I wrote a blog post once about over-hype, when a book cannot live up to our own expectations (or the expectations others helped craft for us). In this case, THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB, while a good book, couldn’t live up to how much I esteemed THE ROUND HOUSE. In retrospect, I approached Erdrich’s work the wrong way - from most recent to earlier publications. THE ROUND HOUSE is one of her more current successes, a product of decades of honing her craft and writing many stories before. THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB, thought far from Erdrich’s first book, was nevertheless published almost a full decade before THE ROUND HOUSE, doubtless quite the gap of time for sharpening a skill.
With THE ROUND HOUSE, I caught myself appreciating phrases on nearly every page and awing over how not a single word felt out of place. THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB doesn’t have that same tight, polished feel, but I could see glimpses of the writing I admire so much emerging. However, the same keen insight is there even if the turn of phrase didn’t strike me as much. I particularly liked when Delphine confronts her alcoholic father. When she asks him why he drinks and he responds that he does so to fill the emptiness, she explodes that “everyone does everything to fill the emptiness” and therefore that is no excuse for dreadful behavior and poor choices.
I couldn’t invest in this story the way I wanted to primarily because the characters felt more like flat sketches on a page than real, breathing people. I found both the Erdrich books I read driven by character above plot, but when I don’t connect with the characters enough I crave more plot focus. At its heart, THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB is a family saga, not following one event or one person but a particular family over a long period of time. The characters are all interesting and certainly draw the reader in to consider their strengths, weakness, paradoxes, and quirks. Yet they never popped for me the way I like, where I can nearly imagine having a conversation with them myself.
Since this book focuses on the family and characters, I thought it fitting that I describe the cast - since they’re more important really than the plot premise I outlined above. First we have Fidelis, the cliché strong, quiet man who keeps his feelings to himself though he does in fact feel a lot. Then there’s his wife Eva, pregnant with his best friend’s son at the initiation of their marriage. She, too, exhibits a kind of understated determination and work ethic that draws the admiration of Delphine. A former circus performer and forever stubborn, independent woman, Delphine latches on to Eva as the mother she never had. Meanwhile, Delphine takes a fake fiancé Cyprian to stave off small-town rumors on her single life. Cyprian is a veteran and acrobat who, despite his intense feelings for Delphine, cannot love her in the way she wants. Then there’s Delphine’s drunken father Roy who explains her need for some kind of parental role model even as a young woman herself. Eva and Fidelis also have four sons. The oldest Franz has no idea he’s actually fathered by another man and grows up to be Fidelis’s mirror in spirit, though his passion is for planes rather than butchering. Eva and Fidelis first have twin boys, Emil and Erich, and then another son Markus, who becomes Delphine’s favorite and someone she takes great pains to nurture as best she can. There’s also Franz’s girlfriend Mazarine, Fidelis’s busybody sister Tante, the undertaker and Delphine’s best friend Clarisse, and the menacing Sheriff Hock.
In all honesty, I found THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB a good book with ample to discuss regarding characters and relationships not to mention history. I only caution that if you read Erdrich’s later work first, you might be startled at the realization of how much her writing has developed over the past decade. Oh, and if you’re wondering about the title, Fidelis also possesses a remarkable voice and participated in a singing club with other master butchers in Germany, a tradition he brings with him to America.