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Classic review: The Master Butchers Singing Club

A novel from Louise Erdrich, inspired by the German side of her family.

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[This review from the Monitor archives originally ran on Feb. 6, 2003.] Stories rise from Louise Erdrich like smoke from a campfire. Over the past 20 years, starting with "Love Medicine," which won the National Book Critics Circle award, she's produced a series of captivating novels about native American life.

Her latest, The Master Butchers Singing Club, bears only traces of that heritage, but its appeal stems from the same quality that makes her novels set on the Chippewa reservation so good. Despite her critical success, her sophisticated style, and her clear political interests, Erdrich never forgets that we're still hungry to be carried away by good stories.

"The Master Butcher" opens in the ashes of World War I. A German sniper named Fidelis has married his late friend's pregnant wife, an act of camaraderie that quickly deepens. Graced with an eerie stillness, he sets about the careful task of building a home and forgetting the horrors he saw and inflicted. "He moved from the dangerous quiet where he lived," Erdrich writes, "into the unacceptable knowledge that in spite of the dead weight of killed souls and what he'd learned in the last three years about the monstrous ground of existence and his own murderous efficiency, he was meant to love." Even far from the sacred land of her native Americans, Erdrich knows just how to hover between what's plain and what's extraordinary, building on the life of this common German rifleman a story of legendary proportions.


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