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The telltale house

The Master Butchers Singing Club, A Novel, Louise Erdrich, HarperCollins: 390 pp., $25.95

March 02, 2003|Thomas Curwen | 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.

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