Erdrich's tale of an immigrant's quest
<B>Erdrich's tale of an immigrant's quest</B>In beautiful early novels such as Love Medicine and Tracks, Louise Erdrich reckons with the Native-American strain in her own ancestry, interweaving ancient folklore and contemporary life. Now, in <B>The Master Butchers Singing Club</B>, Erdrich pays tribute to the other side of her bloodline. She tells us in the acknowledgements that her grandfather was a butcher who fought on the German side in World War I, and whose sons served on the American side in World War II. Out of this poignant scrap of autobiography arises a grand and generous fiction, Erdrich's most sweeping and ambitious tale yet.
From the very first page, <B>Master Butchers</B> breathes the air of the Homeric epic, with an irony befitting the modern, godforsaken era in which it is set. Erdrich's Odysseus, the German sniper Fidelis Waldvogel, takes only 12 days to walk home from his war (the Great War). Eva, the woman Fidelis comes home to wed, has not been waiting faithfully for <I>him</I>, but for his best friend Johannes, whose child she carries, and whose death in the war Fidelis must now report to her. With this dark homecoming in 1918, the odyssey really begins.
Hoping to make a new life with his grieving bride, Fidelis makes the na•ve attempt to trace a piece of American bread whose manufactured perfection astonishes him back to its source. Fidelis gets as far as Argus, North Dakota, a place so culturally distant from Germany (and so remote from anywhere) that he must start his life almost from scratch. But not entirely: Fidelis has brought sausages with him in his traveling case, sausages as magically effective as any enchanted object in a fairy tale, for they are the most delicious sausages in the world, the pride of generations of master butchers in the Waldvogel family, whose secret art now falls to Fidelis.
Just as Fidelis and Eva (who joins him in Argus) are displaced Germans who can never fully be at home in North Dakota, so too this American novel must look elsewhere for its center. Fidelis forms a singing club, where he meets the passionate Delphine Watzka, a young woman who becomes the real Odysseus of the novel. Like Homer's hero, she comes home from her travels and sets her ruined father back on his feet again. The Odyssean parallels compound: Delphine faces a terrible "Underworld" of unquiet spirits (in her father's cellar), is detained by a god-like lover with whom there can be no hope of true love (the beautiful acrobat Cyprian), is charmed by a Circe (her childhood friend Clarisse, now the town's undertaker), whose job it is to turn human beings into something else, and must outwit the Cyclopean "Tante," Fidelis' sister, who would "eat" Fidelis' children by taking them back to Germany.
At the heart of the novel is the friendship between Delphine and Eva, a phenomenon as beautiful, as unlikely and as strangely inevitable as butchers who sing like angels. Delphine loves Eva so luminously, she would do anything for her. In the end, this is precisely what happens.
Louise Erdrich is always a step and a half ahead of us with her limitless compassion, taking account of all that is most implacable in life, for good or ill, whether it is the love that burns us or the deaths that claim us and those we love. <I>Michael Alec Rose teaches at Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music.</I>