Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of talk of tissue and blood in this story and simmering beneath. Bodies and carcasses (and not all in the expected places) are salved and slaughtered, vulnerabilities exposed and secrets maintained.
The intimacy which I longed for in The Beet Queen (1986) pulses and surges through this story. Although one of her longer works, it reads more quickly than her shortest works.
Readers looking for an entry into the connected stories of Louise Erdrich – those in the Love Medicine cycle – would likely enjoy this one just as much as The Last Report on the Miracles of Little No Horse (2001).
Both books maintain Erdrich’s loose focus on community-first but spend more time with one character than the rest of the cast, which makes it easier to connect than with the narrative threads in earlier volumes like Tracks and Four Souls.
(At first, Miracles seems more overtly bookish and, it’s true, that nobody in Butchers builds walls out of books, but there is a reader in Butchers, too, and she reads voraciously and eclectically. So, vote for worship or workmanship: each book has its own charm.)
The story reaches back to explain the mastery behind the butchery and the establishment of Fidelis’ shop. Having survived the war, Fidelis travelled to inform his friend’s wife (now widow) that his friend/her husband died then on to the United States to practice his trade, eventually establishing himself in Argus, North Dakota and bringing the woman (and her son) to live there with him.
In many ways, Eva is at the heart of the novel but, in fact, readers spend more time with Delphine, who eventually works in the butcher’s shop with Eva and Fidelis. (Readers of the cycle will already have spent time in the town’s OTHER butcher shop, via The Beet Queen.)
Unlike some of Erdrich’s other books, the story here is chronologically told, and more tightly too, which is another reason why this one is so accessible and satisfying. Generally, after characters have been established, readers move alongside them, in step with them as events unfold.
But as with so many of Erdrich’s characters, “the past with its horrors, complexities, and the incompletions intruded” and occasionally time slips so that readers have an opportunity to understand something strange (miraculous? devastating?).
There is a love story here, too. (As in most of the books, but especially The Antelope Wife (1998) and Tales of Burning Love (1996). And it, like the occasional body, is not where you might have expected to find it. “It would seem for months afterward that there had been a great collision, that two glaciers had through slow force smashed together, at last, and buckled.”
And the natural world doesn’t only make an appearance for love metaphors: there are many beautiful passages about the land and the seasons. Also, in contrast to Tales of Burning Love, this feels like a warm-weather tale. “The spring wind was a quiet and sustained moan, fluttering bits of paper and driving down needles of sleet. The skies were pale purple, the trees soft gray, leafless. There was a watery freshness to the morning light.”
Tale-telling is of great importance: “There are people who pretend to themselves they are honest, and there are people who actually tell the truth. You’re still between the two.”
Those people who we want to believe are the most dependable in our lives are as capable of betrayal as anyone else (but, also, capable of surprising). “An immense, dispirited darkness of mood caved down on her as she took in the fact that she’d ignored the signs in [him]. Why was she such a realist in every other way except when it came to her father?”
All of that is typical Erdrich, but I know you are still waiting for that bookish bit. The best passage I will leave in the story, but here is a hint of it: “When she came to the end of a novel, and put it down and with reluctance left its world, sometimes she thought of herself as a character in the book of her own life. She regarded the ins and outs, the possibilities and strangeness of her narrative. What would she do next?”
LOUISE ERDRICH PROJECT
The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003)
The Painted Drum (2005)
The Plague of Doves (2008)
Shadow Tag (2010)