I’m working on a novel right now dealing heavily with music, and was originally attracted to Louise Erdrich’s The Master Butcher’s Singing Club based on its content–I wanted to see how another writer handled music, in both its description and technical aspects. I quickly discovered, however, that MBSC was only about music on the surface; it is actually a multi-generational family saga. The novel takes place in a developing North Dakota town between the two world wars, following Fidelis Waldvogel and his four sons as they move through their lives with Delphine Watzka, the strong, progressive heroine who befriends the boys’ mother. I also discovered, quickly, that MBSC was fantastic, a fact that many other people already seemed to know. For example, while I was carrying MBSC around the AP English reading, matronly high school teachers kept grabbing me enthusiastically, even violently, by the arm and exclaiming, “Isn’t it incredible?!? I thought it was INCREDIBLE!!!” I nodded in agreement and self-preservation, but now my accolades are more sincere.
The story in MBSC is both grand and intimate, creating moments as periodically pulse-pounding as they are emotionally dense. The characters–Delphine especially–are complicated and rich, their beauty conveyed by lush, supple prose. Furthermore, the book is remarkably deft in its handling of time; Erdrich can devote pages to an instant in the character’s mind, and then propel time forward for years in the very next chapter—and if that sounds disorienting, I assure you it’s not. I’ve read some books recently that had very little effect on me, and so it was fantastic to be moved, multiple times, to chills or tears. So while the book is not perfect (a great deal of early attention is devoted to episodes with only scant influence on the overall plot, and Delphine enters a kind of emotional stasis towards the beginning of the third act, which makes the narrative sag) there is much more to applaud here than to nitpick. I liked the book so much, in fact, that I’ll put it in a course someday.
In the meantime, the book fulfilled its purpose of teaching me something about writing music, in that it mostly doesn’t write about music. The singing club (which was founded by Fidelis, a butcher, and attracts many of the men in town) is predominantly an artistic motif and occasional plot device, providing unity between the three decades and bringing together otherwise separate characters. It never takes center stage until the end, however, when it becomes an almost –almost– heavy-handed metaphor. Otherwise, the singing is in the background, which lets Erdrich put appropriate attention on other elements of the story. Songs are named, but described only when scene or characterization merits the attention—and even then such description wears thin surprisingly quickly. Also, nowhere were there any theoretical or technical discussions of music, which makes sense, based both on the character’s level of actual knowledge and on the fact that many readers find that kind of thing tiresome. Erdrich’s restraint in this respect was a useful reminder. So the book, without question, provides some helpful bits of instruction—although that isn’t why I recommend it. I recommend it because, for the first time in a while, a book reminded me why I wanted to be a writer. That’s some of the highest praise I can offer.