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A Continually Surprising Treat for Good Listening or Reading
on 18 September 2007
Seldom has a novel surprised me in as many ways as The Master Butchers Singing Club did. Be careful that you don't read any spoilers: Those plot details could neutralize at lot of the pleasures you'll receive from the book. One of my favorite reference librarians told me that this was a book not to be missed, and she was right!
If you like to listen to books being read, I highly recommend the unabridged cassette version that the author, Louise Erdrich, reads. Ms. Erdrich has a wonderful way of bringing her vivid book to life through her pauses and emphasis that adds nuance to the story. Although her voice isn't commanding, her quiet tones rang deeply inside me. The experience was like hearing my aunts tell a story about their German-American in-laws during the Depression and World War II.
The book has so much to recommend it that it's hard to focus on just a few areas. Those who love multigenerational family sagas will be pleased to see that the book has that quality. Those who appreciate novels with a strong sense of place will find themselves delving deeply into the ins and outs of Argus, North Dakota. People who like to read about overcoming hardship and loss will love this book. Readers who dislike being able to anticipate what comes next will be continually fascinated by the plot's many unexpected twists and turns, especially in the beginning. For people like me who love character development, the book offers a full development of not only the main characters . . . but also many of the secondary characters. Those who love novels that deeply explore a few themes will be fascinated by Ms. Erdrich's take on the rewards of doing one's duty and her suggestions about the meaning of life.
The book begins with a story not unlike Gunter Grass tells in Peeling the Onion about his experiences near the end of World War I. With difficulty, German sniper Fidelis Waldvogel makes his way home after the armistice to keep a promise to his best friend, to marry his dead friend's fiancée, Eva Kalb, and to be a good father to the child she is carrying. From their marriage, Fidelis learns that he is better at loving than at killing, even though he has done much killing in the war and as a butcher.
Fascinated by a slice of machine-made bread from America, Fidelis decides he must live where people do such things. Taking only his butcher's knives, his father's sausage recipe, a suitcase full of sausages to sell for his passage, and his beautiful singing voice, Fidelis heads for Seattle . . . only to end up in Argus, North Dakota where his sausages and money run out. Eventually, he reunited there with his wife and child.
Next, we meet Delphine Watzka, a native of Argus, who is touring in a variety act with Cyprian, a balancing whiz, whose male beauty attracts her. When she tires of providing her stomach as the foundation for his gymnastics, they return to Argus where she finds her alcoholic father, Roy, in a terrible state. The two pitch in to take care of Roy and clean up his horrible messes.
From there, the lives of Fidelis and Delphine begin to interact as Eva hires Delphine to help with the butcher's shop and household chores. You'll also meet the men who join Fidelis in his singing club.
The book has more than its share of heroes, heroines, and villains. They make nice contrasts with one another.
When you finish this book, I hope you'll think about where doing your duty can bring unexpected rewards and satisfactions.