THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB

By Louise Erdrich *

HarperCollins. 389 pp. $25.95

It's not something many people do much anymore, maybe because it's one of those vestigial Old World customs, but when I was a girl it was a common, an indispensable, thing. In our immigrant circle, there wasn't a social occasion -- a wedding or a wake, an excuse for a gathering over babka or highballs, in dance halls or living rooms or around a bonfire on the lake -- that was over until the songs had been sung. That meant that every able-voiced adult and child in the pack -- no Jenny Linds or Mario Lanzas required, just a passable set of chords and the ability to carry a tune, please -- was obliged to swell the chorus that would rise, at my father's direction, in a streaming medley of old-country folk songs and patriotic marches, sentimental love tunes and dolorous soldiers' laments, on to classical arias and, finally, the bittersweet ballad that ended the night as tears glistened in every eye: "How swiftly the moments fly by."

Ah, the singing life! Music and harmony and the melding of hearts -- all so central to the Central and East European heritage. Leave it to the Germans, though, to have organized it to the teeth, forming Sa{dier}ngerbunde and Gesangvereine in every German immigrant community in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to hold on to the Vaterland, to keep their vocal form up, to remind themselves of better things when life got hard and drear. What an entertaining notion on Louise Erdrich's part, I thought when I first saw her new novel, The Master Butchers Singing Club, to hang a story on this cultural hook. What fun she could have with it; what a colorful world she could build around it. And she has -- and how. And how lucky we are for it.

Though you might expect it to be front and center, the eponymous singing club of Erdrich's tale spends most of the book humming quietly in the background of the action. But that's all right because, you know, titles aren't always just what they seem to be. The club is the creation of one Fidelis Waldvogel, a German sniper who survives the Great War and returns home to marry the pregnant fiance{acute}e of a comrade-in-arms who wasn't as fortunate as he. Soon he's on his way to America in pursuit of a perfect square of white bread, bringing only "a suitcase full of his father's miraculous smoked sausage" and his precious butcher's knives. Making his way across the continent by selling the sausage at various stops, he finally runs out of money in a small town in North Dakota and disembarks -- dropping us smack in the middle of Louise Erdrich country.

Welcome back to Argus and environs, the little postage stamp of native soil that Erdrich has been immortalizing in her fiction for more than 20 years. This time, though, she's moved off the Indian reservation that's been her chief playground in the past and into the heart of town, to introduce a passel of characters among the descendants of the immigrant Germans, Poles, Czechs and other European settlers who make Argus throb and thrum.

Chief among these is Delphine Watzka, a "stocky Polish girl from a scrap of farm" whom we first meet performing as a "human table" for the circus balancing act of her not-quite-lover, Cyprian Lazarre. Tiring of the traveling-show circuit, Delphine and Cyprian head back to Argus to check in on the girl's alcoholic father, Roy. At his "beaten little farmhouse," they stumble upon a "horrible odor" and a gruesome mystery that obliges them to stick around town -- and sets the course of Delphine's life.

For one day she walks into Waldvogel's butcher shop and befriends Eva, the wife Fidelis has brought over from Germany, who hires her to help around the place. When Fidelis enters from the slaughterhouse, Delphine feels a shock. "Before she met him, she sensed him," Erdrich writes, "like a surge of electric power in the air when the clouds are low and lightning bounds across the earth."

I'll bet you think you know where this is going, don't you? Well, you're right -- Delphine and Fidelis do end up together -- but I guarantee you're wrong about how they get there. Erdrich, I'm happy to report, isn't interested in a tale of heated romance or illicit love; love in its many forms is certainly one of her subjects, but chiefly she's writing about the slow, inexorably unwinding spool of life, and the myriad details, small and wearing and rewarding as well as grand and exhilarating and frightening, that fill and mark off our days. She's drawing her own portrait of what makes for fulfillment: "an even life, without any jumps and starts. . . . the kind of life you didn't know at the time you were living it was a happy life."

But oh, those jumps and starts. There are lots in The Master Butchers Singing Club, from murders to missing children to broken hearts and more. Delphine and Eva are soon fast friends, and Delphine becomes thickly involved in the life of the entire Waldvogel family, including the four boys -- Franz, Markus and the twins Emil and Erich -- and Tante Maria Theresa, Fidelis's scheming spinster sister, who is determined to take the children back to Germany one day. It's a tough life, full of cleaning and cooking, and polishing and waxing, and baking and caring and worrying and planning -- and death. For death is the underlying theme -- from the ritual deaths that occur daily in Fidelis's slaughterhouse to the dressing of the dead that takes place in the funeral parlor of Delphine's best friend, Clarisse, to the mysterious dead who keep Delphine in Argus. There's the deaths of the war Fidelis fought in, and the deaths of the war his sons fight in by the end. When Eva lies dying of cancer, Delphine, with "mortality . . . always before her," marvels "how anyone lived at all, for any amount of time. Life was a precious feat of daring, she saw, improbable as Cyprian balancing."

That sounds so depressing, I know, but believe me, The Master Butchers Singing Club is far from a slog through the slough of despond. Quite the contrary: It's an enrapturing plunge into the depths of the human heart. On the journey, Erdrich buoys us up by cleverly leavening her story with touches of the comic and the grotesque -- from characters like the ridiculous Tante or the perpetually soused Roy or the eccentric ragpicker Step-and-a-Half to events like the macabre murder of the persistent Sheriff Hock or the demise of the chinchillas the Waldvogel boys are raising to make money. And she gives us the earthy, sensible, even-tempered Delphine -- spunky but not sassy (I hate sassy), motherly and hard-working, she's one of the most appealing heroines to come along in fiction in many a moon.

But mostly what transforms the dirge into rhapsody is that singing club. It isn't, as I said, much in evidence throughout large stretches of the book, apart from a mention here and there of the men gathering behind Fidelis's butcher shop to drink and vocalize once a week. But as the story unspools, between the bloody cataclysms that bracketed the first half of the 20th century, it takes on a larger shape, and its harmonies swell so that it's clear Erdrich isn't writing just about the little group of Argus choristers but about a club a whole lot bigger than that. A club that includes you and me. And to us, she's saying: Sing, everybody, now! For the moments fly so swiftly by. *

Zofia Smardz reviews frequently for Book World.