An elegiac Valentine by Louise Erdrich

February 09, 2003|By Ken Fuson | By Ken Fuson,Special to the Sun

The Master Butchers

Singing Club, by Louise Erdrich. HarperCollins. 400 pages. $25.95.

In the first chapter of this extraordinary novel, a German sniper named Fidelis Waldvogel marks the end of World War I by walking home, marrying the pregnant wife of a fallen comrade, and then moving to America with only a suitcase full of smoked sausage and six butcher knives.

So begins an unusual and stirring love story, beautifully crafted by a wise artist in full command of her abundant talent.

Death haunts so much of this work -- on the battlefield, in the butcher shop, and in an old man's basement -- that describing it as a love story may sound incongruous. But it's the raw brutality of man vs. man and man vs. beast that gives the intimate moments of grace, kindness and forgiveness such power.

Although the story is as taut as a violin string, Erdrich slows the plot's pace considerably after the opening. Waldvogel lands in the fictional town of Argus, N.D. -- loyal Erdrich readers will recognize Argus -- where he opens a butcher shop, brings his wife over from Germany, raises a family and forms a mens' singing group.

For the most part, the people of Argus are the human equivalent of the livestock scraps that Waldvogel throws out each night for wild dogs to gnaw. This is an unforgiving part of the country, and the people are barely hanging on.

In many of her past novels, the prolific Erdrich, whose mother was French Ojibwa and whose father was German-American, has explored her Native American roots and traditions. This book examines the German half, but she seems less interested in what separates us, like place and ethnicity, than in what binds us -- specifically, the strength and adaptabilty of the human heart.

In doing so, Erdrich has created one of the more memorable female characters in recent memory. Delphine Watzka is performing as the human table in a vaudeville act -- her partner stacks chairs on her stomach and then balances himself -- when she returns to Argus to visit an alcoholic father who is too drunk to realize there are three people rotting in his cellar, victims of what may or may not be an accident.

"It would be that way all her life -- disasters, falling like chairs all around her, falling so close they disarranged her hair, but not touching her."

Delphine is in love with her partner, an Ojibwa war veteran who also adores her but prefers men. Delphine finds work in Waldvogel's butcher shop, where she befriends his doomed wife and the Waldvogel children. Fidelis and Delphine are destined for one another.

But a simple plot summary does not fully describe the book's many and surprising delights. The experimentation and political bent of some of Erdrich's past novels is gone, replaced by a confident storyteller who not only shows us her characters, in cinematic detail, but also somehow invites us to inhabit them.

Love, in all its guises, from overheated lust to unconditional devotion, is the theme here. Between a husband and wife. Between a homosexual man and a heterosexual woman. Between two women. Between parents and their children.

The tone is elegiac, but this is Erdrich's lyrical valentine for humanity. Even in the bleak little world of Argus, N.D., there is hope. Love endures. And like the butchers in the title, this book sings.

Ken Fuson, a former staff writer for The Sun, has been a reporter for more than 20 years. He now works at The Des Moines Register.

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