This week, it was announced that Louise Erdrich had been awarded the distinguished achievement award from the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation. When musing on the honor, she stated that she does not consider herself a “peaceful” writer. “I am a troubled one, longing for peace,” she added. I believe many of us can identify with her sentiment. Many of us lately have found ourselves troubled, longing for peace.
So with this thought in mind, I’d like to take the opportunity to recommend a book of Ms. Erdrich’s that I absolutely adore: “The Master Butcher’s Singing Club”. Set in tiny Argus, North Dakota after WWI, the novel chronicles the life of Fidelis Waldvogel, a German soldier who immigrates to America after marrying Eva, the pregnant fiancée of his best friend who was killed in action. Fidelis, a devoted husband, father and son, is a master butcher with a “talent for stillness”, and a love of singing. The family sets down roots in this tiny, often languishing town.
Then Eva befriends mesmerizing Delphine Watzka, a member of a traveling vaudeville troop who has returned to Argus to care for her ailing alcoholic father, Roy. Their lives are complicated when Roy is caught up in a zealous investigation of a family who was found to have died in the basement of his dilapidated house. A frequent visitor to the butcher’s shop, Delphine finds herself attracted to Fidelis, but her love of Eva (as well as Fidelis’ devotion to his wife) keeps any declaration of passion muted, until circumstances change all their lives forever.
Drawing on her own paternal German ancestry (much of Fidelis’ background and stoic attributes hearken back to Ms. Erdrich’s own relatives), this is a very personal novel, full of the deft precision of her prose, the remarkable interplay of secondary characters and subplots, and the unflinching portrayal of a brooding yet beautiful Midwestern landscape that is a hallmark of Ms. Erdrich’s writing. “The Master Butcher’s Singing Club” is a complicated love story that unfolds with its own unique sense of unflinching grace, and it’s a story that cannot escape the ravages of violence and death and tragedy. It’s a troubled story of ordinary people longing for peace – something that will resonate with many of us, here and now.