The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich

10/05/03, The Times

Intractable physicalities dominate the world of Louise Erdrich’s eighth novel, the chief among them being odour. There are the warm, welcoming smells of fresh baking from the kitchen, the revolting one of rotting human corpses in subterranean cellars, fresh ones of sausages and cold cuts. Then there is the very particular type of materiality that goes with the butcher’s trade: the smell of spice and the smokehouse, of fresh blood, of the deep freeze where animal carcasses are stored; the solidity of the slaughterhouse with its scalding tubs, tracks, hooks, knives, steel-sheeted tabletops, meat saws, steel brushes, butcher blocks, fresh sawdust to soak up blood from the floor. It is no surprise that this olfactorily fixated novel has a commensurate fixation with obsessive cleaning, of body, of hair, of floors, worktops, linoleum, bedsheets, linen, clothes, apron. The Master Butchers [sic] Singing Club strains a fair few of its own sinews for embeddedness in the tangible and the material.

The world that the book chooses to realize in such ways is Argus, North Dakota, during the interwar years and the Second World War. Hardy had his Wessex, Faulkner his Yoknapatawpha County. It is perhaps hubris on this reader’s part to add Erdrich’s Argus, N.D., to this august list, but this is not her first book set in this fictional town and, one suspects, not her last centering on the unfolding tales about ordinary people who inhabit this outpost of the American Dream.

The sight of a square of sliced white bread, perfectly regular, unseen in the Germany of 1918, sends Fidelis Waldvogel, recently returned from the First World War to his native Ludwigsruhe and married to the pregnant fiancée of his best friend who was killed in the war, on a journey across the ocean to start a new life. His suitcase is full of his father’s miraculous smoked sausages and a set of butcher’s knives. He sets up his own butchery at one end of the straggly little town of Argus. His wife Eva and their firstborn, Franz, join him. They have more children: Markus, and the twins, Erich and Emil. Fidelis’s malicious sister, Tante Maria Theresa, joins them too. The Protestant ethic that provides the matrix of the American Dream is writ large everywhere: unflinching concentration on hard work leading to slow financial success and happiness. The ‘can do’ attitude fairly grabs the reader by her throat.

The same attitude characterizes the other protagonist of the novel, Delphine Watzka, daughter of town drunk, Roy Watzka. She gives up an itinerant life with the acrobat Cyprian Lazarre, returns to her native town and strikes up a beautiful friendship with Eva Waldvogel. When Eva dies, Delphine keeps things ticking: she continues looking after the shop, taking care of the children, keeping everything squeaky clean as Eva used to, washing, ironing, doing the laundry, waxing floors, baking cakes to her friend’s recipes. Reader, you could be forgiven for thinking this an expansive version of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management.

How strong Erdrich’s women are. They nurture their menfolk, hold everything together, give their lives focus, neatness, purpose and organization, while the men simmer away in their inarticulate powerfulness, or plain wittering drunkenness. Life boils down to clean aprons and linen and madeira cakes. As Erdrich’s truncated, subjectless sentences move clunkily from one episode to another, we feel a glow inside that there have always been domestic goddesses to keep home and hearth warm and send the men off to war with a thick sandwich and clean clothes.

And then there is the missing apostrophe in the title that still bothers me …