The telltale house

Thomas Curwen is deputy editor of Book Review.

In Argus, N.D., the dead seldom are. Ghosts and memories swirl and rise from the earth after a sudden rain or in a tempest of sunlight. Loss, grief and, in some cases, shame are so palpable here that they dust the shoulders of the deceased and are captured with fleeting brilliance in the pages of "The Master Butchers Singing Club."

At the turn of the 20th century, Argus is little more than a huddle of buildings. Half-grown trees line the streets to the north. A grain elevator and railroad support the outlying farms. Downtown there is a bank, a tavern, churches, scattered businesses with awnings and display windows, and on the outskirts, marooned in a tangle of box elders, a farmhouse where the dead speak the loudest, its blue-framed windows and doors no talismans against their words.

Necromancer, medium, poet and storyteller, Louise Erdrich has been gathering the living and the dead in this mythical corner of North Dakota ever since her 1984 debut, "Love Medicine." Over the years and in the course of six succeeding novels, families, neighbors and acquaintances have lived and died, resurfaced and disappeared with haunting regularity, creating a web of love and enmity that spans more than 100 years.

"The Master Butchers Singing Club" is a significant departure from these earlier, wind-swept strains. Setting aside her Native American past, Erdrich, who is of Ojibwa and German ancestry, has tapped into her immigrant roots to write a more discreet story covering 36 years in the life of this town. It is her darkest and most personal book, beginning with the sepia-toned photograph on its cover.

Dressed in an apron with a sharpening stone hanging from his waist, this young man is Erdrich's grandfather and the model for Fidelis Waldvogel, the story's master butcher, who, having returned from the killing fields of the Great War, emigrates to America, settling himself and eventually his wife, Eva, in Argus, where he opens a butcher shop within walking distance of that tangle of box elders and that farmhouse, the childhood home of Delphine Watzka.

Erdrich is a writer with an extraordinarily deft imagination. Credit her touch for creating a leitmotif that could be macabre or funereal but isn't -- for entombed in the cellar of this farmhouse is the Chavers family, a mother, father and child, who one afternoon during a funeral party wandered into this subterranean keep, found themselves trapped, and for all their shouting and imprecations, soon fell silent, their forgotten lives slowly permeating the home.

The mystery of their deaths confronts Delphine in the opening pages and brings to her character a haunted pensiveness she tries in vain to shake. She had left Argus, we discover, at an early age. Having grown up without a mother and in the company of an alcoholic father, she hoped to find more in life. Enter Cyprian Lazarre, an acrobat with a traveling circus. They meet, develop a routine, fall in love, and one day she catches him in the embrace of another man, an act he is unable to explain.

But as Erdrich makes clear, love is not diminished by the absence or the longing for sex. Delphine and Cyprian make a troubled peace and on their travels return to her home, where they discover the bodies of the Chavers. Delphine's father, Roy, is implicated but not charged, and given his progressive dissolution -- drunk from the day his wife disappeared -- they decide to stay. They move into the farmhouse, filling the cellar with dirt and ash, washing the walls with vinegar and ammonia.

But the premature dead are impossible to silence. They lodge in the consciences of the living and refuse to abandon their claims. Roy extends his binge to mute their cries, and Delphine, to distance herself from this past, starts working for Eva. It is the friendship between these two women, their sympathies and longings, wound around the shop and the four young Waldvogel boys, that Erdrich skillfully develops.

Erdrich's stories, imaginative as they may be, have had of late a slightly florid air. Her titles can be ungainly (her previous book: "The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse") and unlyrical. Her dialogue can be self-conscious, and her romantic encounters overdrawn. When Fidelis and Delphine see one another for the first time: "Clouds flew across the sun. Light shuttered in and out of the room, and the red mouths of the geraniums on the windowsill yawned."

But no matter the gilding, Erdrich's commitment to her characters is steadfast whatever lies in their paths, and she is accomplished enough to step aside when the momentum of her story overtakes any attempt to shape or form it.

Life, she makes clear, is a feat of daring, a credo that applies as much to her art as to her story. In "The Master Butchers Singing Club," this daring is played out against the highest of stakes -- that of life and of death -- at the heart of which lies a deeper, more spiritual hunger.

How do you balance? Delphine asks Cyprian one day. "Some people think of it as a point," he explains, "but it isn't a point." Then he finds the right analogy: "Say, you have a dream.... In that dream you know that you are dreaming. If you become too aware of knowing you are dreaming, you wake up. But if you are just enough aware, you can influence your dream."

And if you fall? "[Y]ou must forget that you exist," he tells her. "Strike the ground as a shadow strikes the ground. Weightless."

Weaving the braids of Fidelis and Eva and Delphine and Cyprian against the backdrop of Argus, Erdrich reveals a more metaphysical side to her writing than in previous novels. Watching Eva, Delphine thinks to herself: "[W]hy are we given the curse of imagining eternity when we know we can't experience it, when we ourselves are so finite?" The question is never asked out loud, for there is no answer. In a world defined by loss, solace is, at best, found one summer evening in a garden where two women can be seen sipping beer among the slugs and vines and the forgotten dog bones. Little more can be expected, and even less, when midway through this tale, Eva falls ill and dies.

"The dead have more power than we know," Delphine tells Cyprian, and grief becomes the ambassador, a tearful measure of love between the living and the dead. Fidelis' household falls into disarray; his sons run wild in their mother's absence, and Erdrich deepens her picture of Delphine, who more than anyone knows the porousness between the two worlds. If it frightens her, she doesn't show it. If it saddens her, then with good reason:

"She saw that in her life there was a woman-shaped hole, a cutout that led to a mysterious place. Through it, her mother, then Eva, and now Clarisse" -- a childhood friend who one day disappears -- "had walked. If only she could plunge her arms through and drag them back."

Her wanting is made difficult by convention and is exacerbated by the sexless complications of her life with Cyprian. Together they are a man and a woman struggling to know the meaning of their love, a meaning that is perhaps impossible to decipher. Nor does it come any easier -- when it does -- for Delphine and Fidelis. Theirs is a world "of grown-up love, with all its terrible compromises," a love charged more with caring and compassion in Eva's absence than anything more urgent.

As Erdrich unleashes the Depression and then madness of another world war upon these lives, she draws all the threads tight, answering the mystery of the Chavers' deaths and broadening it with two final stories.

First, there's Roy, on his deathbed, years of drinking having taken their toll, drawing Delphine near to tell her something about her family and a "ragtag bunch of starved and freezing Minneconjou Lakotas ... [who] have this idea they can dance the world back, sing to the dead and the dead will hear them and all will rise and live." The ghost dance he describes was the last effort of a destroyed and despairing people to live with hope. Its flourishing, of course, was short-lived, ending in this case with the massacre at Wounded Knee.

The second tale comes in the final pages of the novel through the memories of Step-and-a-Half, a marginal eccentric who -- as her name suggests -- has wandered in and out of the story and through the streets of Argus. Erdrich explains that, as a child, Step-and-a-Half survived the day the dancing stopped, the day the 7th Cavalry with its Hotchkiss guns mowed down the Lakota encampment.

"Who wouldn't try," Erdrich asks, "for a whole life, to walk off such memories? For that was what it came to and why she did it -- walking was the only way to outdistance all that she remembered and did not remember, and the space into which she walked was comfortingly empty of human cruelty."

The tragedies of Wounded Knee, the two world wars, are inescapable. They surround us as surely as the smaller tragedies of life: a farming accident, a suicide or the Chavers' untimely end. How we live with the prospect of such dying, how we love with the prospect of such death, is the question of Erdrich's magnificent tale. "The past," William Faulkner once told us, "is never dead. It's not even past."

Poignant in the mysteries it evokes and patient with the questions it leaves unanswered, "The Master Butchers Singing Club" is a resonant work in which songs -- yes, songs, for early on Fidelis forms among the men of Argus the book's eponymous singing club -- become a bridge, a benediction, to the other side. "How close the dead are," Step-and-a-Half reflects. "One song away from the living." It is a sentiment that haunts these pages.

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