From National Book Award-winning, New York Times-bestselling author Louise Erdrich, a profound and enchanting new novel: a richly imagined world “where butchers sing like angels.” Having survived World War I, Fidelis Waldvogel returns to his quiet German village and marries the pregnant widow of his best friend, killed in action. With a suitcase full of sausages and a master butcher's precious knife set, Fidelis sets out for America. In Argus, North Dakota, he builds a business, a home for his family—which includes Eva and four sons—and a singing club consisting of the best voices in town. When the Old World meets the New—in the person of Delphine Watzka—the great adventure of Fidelis's life begins. Delphine meets Eva and is enchanted. She meets Fidelis, and the ground trembles. These momentous encounters will determine the course of Delphine's life, and the trajectory of this brilliant novel.
I loved the experience of reading this book, and I didn't want it to end. Now that I reflect on it, I'm not sure I understand what Erdrich was trying to do with this book. Death is a recurring theme; burial even more so. The dead are buried. The living are buried alive. Bones are buried. Emotions are buried. Secrets are buried. The things that are buried don't always stay buried. I liked this book more than The Plague of Doves, but I think Erdrich can do better than this.
Death and life are the same. Our own lives lead us towards our own deaths as we live from the proteins that we harvest from those other living creatures killed for our nourishment. And we, ourselves, live and die for the nourishment of others.
That which we see around us is so much more than we suspect; but is hidden from us by, not only our own self-imposed illusions, but also by the deceptions imposed upon us by others for our own, and their own, protection.
This book plays out those realities in ways that confuse and deceive us so that we may then learn for ourselves that which we have forgotten.
This is one more gem; and Louise Erdrich keeps making jewelery.
But this story is really about Delphine, a native of, though an outsider in, Argus. It's about her relationship with men, sort of, but really about what she discovers when she meets Eva, Fidelis's wife. In Eva, Delphine discovers the mother she never had, as well as a best friend. That Delphine comes to love Eva's family as her own is fortunate when Eva is struck with a massive tumor. Delphine nurses her until her death and then cares for Fidelis and their sons.
All of this makes for a story that is lovingly told. What threw me for a loop, though, was at the very end of the book when the truth about Delphine's mother is revealed to the reader, but not to Delphine herself. Although I was vaguely interested to have this mystery cleared up, I don't really think it was necessary to the story at all. By including it at the end, it seemed as though we were supposed to think that this revelation was the whole point of the story, rather than an incidental part of the character Delphine became. The answer provided excellent closure to the story as a whole, but part of me wishes Erdrich had finished the book without it.
I’m of two minds about this book. On the one hand, the prose is just so lovely that reading it was a joy. It’s like looking through a jewel box. But on the other hand, despite the length, a lot of the characters seem to be fairly impenetrable. Delphine, even though she is the main character, we seem to only skim the surface of. Delphine’s best friend has a huge event happen to her, but the effect in the story is negligible. The reveal at the end is momentous, but we have no idea WHY Mazarine’s mother did what she did years before Mazarine was born. Was she unaware of her state? Did she not care? How did Mazarine manage to survive her lack of care? The book is not boring- far from it- but it seems to lack something. In the end, I wanted to know more about these people than the author gave us.
reviewed by: Janet
It was absolutely readable. Wedged somewhere in the comfort space between beach read and Joyce Carol Oates-ish familial angst, it never gave me a moment's regret for choosing it to read.
The characters are strong and individualistic.The epic nature of the breadth of the geography and history that this novel covers is captivating.
There are a few things that are hard to swallow, though. The character of Sheriff Hock? I can't believe any human being would think and behave in that matter. The passages of his dialog seemed to stand in stark, unpleasant contrast to the rest of the novel. It's almost as if someone else wrote his part. Someone with far less talent.
I'm stalling here because I can't think what else to mention. Something about this book softened my brain a bit; I do have clear visions of what I've just read and experienced, but nothing seems to have come of it. But still: enjoyable.
With subtle grace, Erdrich deals with the shame that came of being a first generation American child, the survivor guilt of some American Indians and a surprising view of the acceptance of homosexuality at that time and place.
The underlying story is intriging, the plot is interesting, if not compelling, and the characters are believable, but lack depth.
A nice book, but not exceptional.
our main character Delphine is a woman out of her place, yet contented there in strange and compelling ways. whip smart, driven, and capable, she inhabits a world where these traits seem few and far between. her emotional life is complex and rich, but seems only to reveal an inherent longing that is clearly unquenchable.
an absorbing character study as well as a reflection on the cultural evolution between the two world wars, this novel had much to offer in its depiction of a simple life with extraordinary moments scattered throughout. beautiful evocative language, lovely altogether.
Arriving home to Germany, after World War I, after three years of acting as a sniper, Fidelis is bruised inside and out. He has made a promise to a dying soldier, his friend Johannes, and he fulfills it by marrying his dead comrade’s betrothed. He develops a deep love for Eva, who is pregnant, and after her son is born he develops a deep love for the child named Franz. About three years after the birth, he decides to travel to America. He is now “the master butcher”, no longer a killer. He has the tools of his trade and little else when he winds up in North Dakota. Soon, however, he brings his wife and child to Argus, and although their life is hard, they are contented and devoted to each other. They raise three more sons, in addition to the first born who was fathered by his comrade in arms. Franz is the eldest son. After him came Markus and the twins, Erich and Emil.
Like Fidelis, Cyprian has also survived the war. He and Delphine are quite the couple. He is somewhat of an acrobat and she is his assistant. She has left her hometown farm, in Argus, to travel to Minnesota with him, to perform and make their fortune in sundry fairgrounds. Their story is told with humor, as we meet Delphine and Cyprian, who in all his glory is doing a handstand, naked, in front of a window to the street, which creates quite a stir which Delphine must calm. She is apparently a master at such things after growing up, motherless, with a father who is the town drunk and often had to be rescued when he did outrageous things. She does not know who her mother is since he will only tell her that she went away. He, however, worships a fuzzy picture of her.
When Delphine and her performing partner, Cyprian, return to Argus, they find her father in a drunken stupor, his home in a state of decay with an awful smell that they cannot dislodge, and then, ultimately, they find the bodies of the Chavers family. Somehow, they got locked in Roy’s basement and all three died there. Delphine’s close friend, from another time, is Clarisse, the town’s embalmer. Because of the buried bodies in the basement, they are reunited and their friendship blooms again. At the same time, she meets Eva, the wife of the butcher, who becomes Delphine’s friend and mentor, teaching her a trade and many facets of cooking and housekeeping. The butcher has brought some of the immigrants in the town together to form sort of a glee club similar to the one they had back home, and they meet and sing at regular intervals. Life settles down to a rhythm that is dependable and pleasant except for the fact that Delphine is unfulfilled in her relationship with Cyprian who prefers an alternate lifestyle.
The book tenderly investigates the relationships between people, and it will capture your heart as you develop real feeling for the characters and their struggles to succeed and carve out a place for themselves in this world. You can feel their pain and their happiness, and you can see them in your mind’s eye all those years ago, as they try to find that place for themselves with little else but the power of the strength in their bodies and the faith in their hearts.
The book is also about the variety of ways love can touch our lives. For instance: Delphine misses the love of a mother and a man; Cyprian misses the love of a man and doesn’t understand why he can’t love Delphine in the same way; Roy hungers for the lost Minnie’s love; Franz hungers for Mazarine’s affections; Fidelis misses Eva and the children miss their mother, Sheriff Hock suffers from unrequited love. Love can cause grief as well as ecstasy. It can give hope and create hopelessness. It lives in many shapes and they are all put under the microscope in this book.
The novel is about the variety of ways that we experience war. Throughout the book there is a theme of warring factions. There is also a prevailing theme, too, about the futility and injustice of war, in all its forms. There is, of course, the war between countries, the war that exists between friends when they have disagreements, the war between competitors in business, petty wars between relatives, there are often battle scarred husbands and wives who often have silly disputes that escalate, wars with disagreeable neighbors. Life and death are wars in themselves; the very struggle to survive or expire involves battles of many kinds with medical staff, well intentioned relatives and friends and oneself. There are wars or struggles over right and wrong, choice of lovers, laws and their enforcement. Not all wars involve weapons. Some are emotional and exist only within the lost soul. All of these are explored.
Friends may often become enemies, and later, friends again. This story is about a family torn apart by war when during World War II, some members of the family fight for the Axis and the Fatherland, while the other members fight for the Allies and America. They are fighting against each other because they are in countries with different ideologies and goals. Part of the family raised fully in America, identifies with her, the other part, living now in Germany, fights for America’s enemies. The futility of war is obvious since former enemies are now friends and former friends are now enemies, even today.
The book is also about the scars of life that people carry around with them, about the life-changing moments. Markus’ childhood accident, being buried under a hill when it collapses, and the death of his mom, scar him deeply. Delphine is scarred by the lack of a mother’s influence and the embarrassment of having the town drunk for her father. Eva is scarred by loss and disease. Mazarine is scarred by her terrible home life. Fidelis and Cyprian are physically and mentally scarred by war and injuries. The tale is colored by the effects of these scars on all of the characters.
There is a subtle theme of “stealing” also. Tante steals Eva’s medication, Roy steals morphine afterwards. He stole the life of the Chaver’s family. Tante steals her happiness from the lives of others and takes Fidelis’ children to Germany. Fidelis, in a sense, steals his dead buddy’s life when he marries Eva. Delphine steps into Fidelis and Eva’s life, pretty seamlessly. Franz’s love is stolen, briefly, from Mazarine, by his classmate, Betty. The mountain steals Markus’ boyish outlook on life. Clarissa steals Cyprian and the life of Hock. Hock tries to steal her love. Step and a Half steals Mrs. Smirkus’s baby when she was left for dead.
In the end, none of the characters were fully aware of what they could and could not achieve in life. Clarisse became a master embalmer, Roy once kicked his drinking habit, Eva made a success of Fidelis’ business and became a wonderful mentor to Delphine, and then Delphine became a mentor to Mazarine who had became a teacher and then a shopkeeper.
There are some ironies in the story that could have been developed more fully. Although Franz did not know he was the son of a Jew, and believes he is the son of Fidelis and Eva, both Germans, he goes off to fight against the Germans. The irony about the path that Eva and Mazarine both travel, losing their sweethearts because of war and before the child is born, is not dwelt upon either. However, the story develops so many themes well, it will just give the reader more to ponder.
The beauty of this book is in its down home values, its strong images of love and devotion, honor and morality. The picture of a child defying all odds in order to take his mom up in a plane, to make her happy, as she lays dying, is incredibly moving. The idea of Eva’s vision, in which she decides she is part of everything, even after she dies, having nothing to do with religion or anything else, but simply her idea of how it is, becomes a significant message of the book. Eva feels strongly about this, especially after her plane flight. She knows life will continue to change; it will go on, wonderful things will be discovered that they can’t imagine, but her essence will continue and be part of it. What a wonderful way to think about life and death.
These are plain folk with simple values and a strong determination to succeed at something, to work hard and achieve. It is the old way, and today, this drive and energy does not seem so apparent in our young people. More often we see them waiting for someone to give them an opportunity, rather than see them searching for their moment of opportunity.
The story transcends issues of race, religion and sexuality since it very calmly includes interracial relationships, homosexuality, bisexuality and inter-religious unions without undue sentiment or concern.
Delphine, Fidelis, Cyprian, Ray, Step-n-a-half, Markus and Evan are the characters who populate Argus ND just after WW I. We follow them to about 1950. Not much happens, and yet, a lot happens. This is not so much a plot-driven work as a character-driven one. And I got caught up in the stories of their lives.
Before long a strange series of events affect the characters in this story and what characters they are. This novel probably has one of the most outstanding sets of secondary characters I've ever read. Everyone has a unique identity and unique emotions. They all have stories and secrets. The characters are richly developed and the plot is complex and unpredictable. This story is a series of separate yet simultaneously occurring stories woven into one. The mood is somber and discouraging and filled with human brutality and tragedy as all of the characters attempt to cope with numerous hardships and complicated emotions. I found it to be a great story with amazing characters and story lines, mysterious twists and turns, and a spectrum of human emotion. It was my first Louise Erdrich novel but I can't imagine it being my last.