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We all sing together: eighth novel has everything we've come to expect from talented Chippewa writer. (Rare Intellect).

The Master Butchers Singing Club

Suzanne Merhot

Louise Erdrich

HarperCollins

389 pages

$39.95 (hc)

Chippewa writer Louise Erdich usually writes about Aboriginal people in her novels, which detail the interconnected lives of the Morrissey, Kashpaw, Lamartine, Lazarre, Nanapush, and Pillager families of North Dakota. In her eighth novel, using her own German-American ancestors as inspiration, Erdrich turns to non-Native characters.

The Master Butchers Singing Club begins with Fidelis Waldvogel, a sniper in the German Army who returns home after the First World War and marries Eva, the pregnant girlfriend of his best friend, who was killed in the war. Fidelis, trained as a master butcher,, then sets off to find his fortune in America--and ends up in Argus, N.D. Fidelis, opens a butcher shop in the town, sends for Eva, and their lives eventually intersect with Delphine Watzka, a young woman who becomes Eva's confidante and a surrogate mother to her four sons. The novel follows Fidelis, Eva, Delphine, and the Waldvogel boys through the next 36 years, as they build their lives, face. death, and learn to love.

Those familiar with Erdrich's other novels will recognize some of the settings in this book, but will meet entirely new characters. The good news is that Erdrich's non-Native characters are just as interesting as her Native ones. The Master Butchers Singing Club is filled with the usual cast of colorful Erdrichean individuals: an outcast garbage picker, an incorrigible alcoholic, a meanspirited spinster, a traveling showman, and a feminist undertaker, among others. (The showman is Delphine s sometime lover, Cyprian Lazarre. He is one of two Native characters in the book, both of whom are important to the story but rather marginal in its telling.)

Like the previous novels, this book shifts back and forth among various narrative voices, but it features a much flatter and more linear timeline than any of Erdrich's other books. At one point, the author careens from a discussion of kids' toys to Fidelis's sausages to her school days with her undertaker friend in less than one page. But that accelerated pace also makes certain scenes-- when one of the Waldovogel boys is trapped inside a mound of construction dirt, when Eva needs pain medicine for her cancer-- stand our in sudden intensity. Their importance is highlighted by their incremental, concentrated sensibility.

Erdrich uses a blend of poetic language, surreal circumstances, and humor to convey the intricate connections of small towns: the debts, the secrets, the public and private faces, the assigned roles. As she reveals those connections, she shows the balance people must strike between happiness and misery, killing and living, and life and death.

Fidelis's cronies in the Argus singing club are of different. nationalities. They sing together and share songs from their cultures.

All of the seemly disparate ideas in the book come together when Erdrich reveals the identity of the most accomplished master butcher, and the choir she conducts in the sky. The truth is, we sing alongside each other. In the spirit world, there are no sides. It is humans who choose sides.

A truly wonderful book.

Kim Ghostkeeper--Conference co-ordinator, Ghostkeeper Synergetics Inc.

Recommends:

A Fine Balance By Rohinton Mistry

McClelland & Stewart--1995

For most of my life I haven't been much of a reader, so my selection of a book with 748 pages to read is rather amazing in itself. I've never really appreciated the gift of reading. Mostly reading has been a necessity, not something I did for pure enjoyment. When I started reading A Fine Balance I wasn't even sure I'd be able to finish it. In fact, the book had been originally purchased as a gift for a more prolific reader in my family, but since they hadn't picked it up, I decided to give it a go.

The book consumed me and called me to it each time I put it down. It was so engaging and such a compelling story that I decided to choose it as my book of choice for this assignment. A Fine Balance is a gritty story set in India in the 70s.

It's about four main characters drawn together under unusual circumstances. It paints a world of poverty so devastating that at times I had to set it aside. As I flipped pages describing a world so foreign to me with its caste system, religious fractions and politics, it proved that a great story can capture and keep even the slowest reader engaged while exposing them to a worldview that is hard and harsh and perhaps even beyond our own comprehension. And yet, within it, the telling of a story of how the smallest ray of hope can be the catalyst for enormous change.

John Bernard--President, Donna Cona

Recommends:

Out Of Muskoka By James Battleman

Punumbra Press--2002

For most of my adult life I have been attempting to explain what it was like growing up on a First Nation and having a Maliseet father and an American/Italian mother. After reading about James Bartleman's life in Out of Muskoka, I felt humbled and enlightened all at the same time. Out of Muskoka is truly a masterpiece and I often refer to it when talking about my own life growing up.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich; A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry; Out Of Muskoka by James Battleman
Author:Merhot, Suzanne
Publication:Wind Speaker
Article Type:Book Review
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:May 1, 2003
Words:870
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