Louise Erdrich


"Four Souls"

(Reviewed by Carisa Richner DEC 19, 2004)

But it crossed my mind that to know others on a superficial level only is a desperate hell and life is worth living only if the veneer is stripped away, the polish, the wax, and we see the true gem of the other no matter how far less than perfect, even ugly, even savage at the heart.

Louise Erdrich’s newest novel continues her epic saga of the Little No Horse, which started with Love Medicine and has proceeded through six novels. Four Souls is a wonderful addition to the collection. Although relatively short, it’s rich with imagery, lyrical writing, humor, and a rewarding plot. In it she ties one of the narrative threads left hanging from her recent novel The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, namely, why did Fleur Pillager leave her daughter at a boarding school for ten years, and how did she come back home wearing a white suit and driving a long, white car? Two different narrators, who, interestingly, don’t know the other exists, tell the answer to this question.

The primary story is about Fleur, a Native American woman who seeks revenge against John James Mauser, the man who swindled her out of her land. Polly Elizabeth, the unmarried sister of Mauser’s wife, narrates this portion of the story, and is a fascinating character. She develops from a stereotypical sort of narrow-minded British housekeeper, referring to Fleur as “the savage woman” and remarking that “perhaps it is true that Indians are unintelligible, to the civilized mind at least, as far removed in habit of thought and behavior as wild wolves from bred hounds,” to claiming Fleur as her “sister.” In fact, Erdrich uses Polly Elizabeth to illustrate one of the central themes of this novel. It seems that all of the main characters suffer from being judged based on what they are, rather than who they are, and are guilty of doing the same thing to others. In this novel, Erdrich does not paint in black and white; a character may be innocent and unfairly dealt with in one area, but then turn around and do the same thing to someone else. Polly Elizabeth’s transformation is perhaps the most extreme (she ends up marrying Mauser’s mute manservant), but as the novel progresses, we see each character come to face to face with their own prejudices and see them explode in their face.

The “snare” imagery that Erdrich uses so effectively in describing Fleur’s journey from murder to marriage is also used to describe how her father Nanapush ends up addressing the entire tribe wearing a woman’s dress. Nanapush becomes convinced that his wife Margaret is having an affair with his nemesis, Shesheeb. Consumed with jealousy, he constructs a snare intending to trap Shesheeb, but instead catches Margaret, almost killing her. While being strangled by the wire, she has a vision from her great-grandmother, who instructs her to fashion a dress that, if constructed entirely of elements untouched by white hands, will give great healing powers to its wearer. It is in this dress that Nanapush, as tribal leader, in a speech both eloquent and ribald, speaks to the tribe about a proposed land settlement: “Listen, old fool, I heard the earth tell me. You are walking on my beautiful body. And I allow it not because you are human and not because you are a man but because you were born of a woman. I, the earth, respect a woman’s pain as it is freely given to the service of life...” The tribe decides to reject the offer, hopefully putting an end to both the land swindles of the whites, and the unwise trade of land for small amounts of money that are wasted on, in Margaret’s case at least, linoleum.

Erdrich expertly weaves the two plot lines and various thematic elements together at the end, but I don’t want to give away the ending. This novel is a must read for a reader familiar with any of Erdrich’s previous novels, and a good place to begin for a reader who is not.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 14 reviews

 

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"The Master Butchers Singing Club"

(Reviewed by April Chase MAR 03, 2003)

Award-winning author Louise Erdrich is back with another truly great book. It is the story of Delphine Watzka, Fidelis Waldvogel and their lives in Argus, North Dakota, a fictional town featured in several of Erdrich's works. Delphine is a hometown girl, the daughter of the town drunk, Roy. Fidelis, a German immigrant, arrives in Argus broke, and finds work in his trade as a master butcher, fully intending to move on as soon as he earns enough money.

Read excerptThe Master Butchers Singing Club is about everyday life, and the amazing things that often happen to ordinary people. Parts are quite funny, albeit in a bittersweet way, and parts are so sad they will leave you dripping tears on the pages. (You will want to go grab a tissue, but you won't be able to put the book down to do so.) This book is a National Book Award Finalist, and seems to be moving steadily up the bestseller lists - and deservedly so.

Needless to say, Fidelis never leaves Argus, and Delphine, after a brief career as a vaudeville performer, returns. Their lives intertwine in strange and mysterious ways, as the lives of people in small towns do. Delphine is befriended by Fidelis's wife, Eva, who seems like the mother she never had, representing all that is domestic and homey. In Eva's big, clean-scrubbed yellow kitchen, Delphine finds peace. She also finds a job, working in the butcher shop and helping Eva with her four strapping boys. But Eva is not well, and in time, Delphine becomes her nurse, caring for her friend as she dies of cancer.

The serenity and orderliness of Eva's house and the obvious love between her and Fidelis is a striking contrast to Delphine's home life and her sham marriage to Cyprian, her strikingly handsome partner in the vaudeville act. Her "husband" does not seem to desire her physically, which puzzles her until she stumbles upon him one night in the arms of another man. Still, he is a good friend and faithful helper, and their mutual dependence keeps them together. Like many couples, they stay with each other through force of habit, because it is easier than splitting up. Delphine hopes against hope that perhaps, somehow, he will change…but deep down, she knows that is not likely.

When Delphine and Cyprian return to Argus, her father Roy is in terrible shape, in a constant drunken stupor and living in unbelievably filthy squalor. They take it upon themselves to clean out his stench-ridden house, and become embroiled in a crime investigation that prevents them from leaving town when they discover, down in the basement, the terrible reason for the smell. The horror they find, and their enforced presence in Argus, creates another bond between them, unnaturally prolonging the failing relationship.

"Delphine witnessed awful things occurring to other humans. Worse than that, she was powerless to alter their fate. It would be that way all her life - disasters, falling like chairs all around her, falling so close they disarranged her hair, but not touching her," writes Erdrich. Drunkenness, illness, poverty, pain, thwarted love, unrealized ambitions - in short, suffering of all types - rage around her throughout the book, and though she suffers too, she emerges unscathed, while others fall by the wayside.

Fidelis, likewise, is a serious soul. A German Army sniper in World War I, he is haunted by the eyes of the many men he picked off. He marries Eva, the lover of his best friend who was killed in the war, so that her child will have a father. He finds that "in spite of the dead weight of killed souls and what he'd learned in the past three years about the monstrous ground of existence and his own murderous efficiency, he was meant to love." His marriage to Eva is happy and prosperous, and her death leaves him helpless, disoriented. His spinster sister comes to live with him, but she doesn't know how to take care of his boys, and his customers don't like her. Finally, he pleads with Delphine to return as his employee, to watch the boys and work in the shop.

For most of the book, Delphine and Fidelis exist in close contact, working together; friends, in a distant fashion, mainly because of Eva and the four boys. But from the first moment Delphine lays eyes on him, it is clear that there will be more to the story:

"Before she met him, she sensed him, like a surge of electric power in the air when the clouds are low and lightning bounds across the earth. Then she felt a heaviness. A field of gravity moved through her body. She tried to rise, to shake the feeling, when he suddenly filled the doorway. Then he entered, and filled the room."

Shocked by her reaction, Delphine resolves to ignore his existence - after all, this is her best friend's husband! - and studiously follows through, barely acknowledging his presence on earth, even after Eva's death, and even in the face of Eva's dying plea for her to marry him and raise her sons. Predictably, the two finally do marry, but it is a marriage of convenience and fondness, necessitated by economic need and the needs of the boys, rather than heated passion that we might have expected. It is "like a rug to sleep beneath instead of a goosedown quilt. It was a love full of everyday business, full of selling and killing and hemming pants. They slept heavily, deeply, and probably both snored."

By rights, The Master Butchers Singing Club should be boring. It's just a story about a little town like any other in Middle America. But anyone who has lived in a small town (and city neighborhoods are very much like little towns of their own, in the midst of the larger urban sprawl) knows that they are really not dull at all. No story is quite as interesting as our own, and just about everyone will see similarities to their own towns and lives here, for all the archetypes of small town America are included: the town drunk, the crazy lady, the gossip, the poor kid, the rich banker. The tragedy and comedy, quirks and foibles and deep secrets of Erdrich's characters are as familiar and believable as that lady down the street, or the great-aunt nobody talks about much. The underlying themes, likewise, are universal: wars, draughts, poverty, hard work, loss and death; but also hope, love, persistence, making peace with destiny, accepting yourself, your family and your town for what they are. As Delphine finds, "Her ambition to leave faded and a kind of contentment set in. She hadn't exactly feared the word contentment, but had always associated it with a vague sense of failure. To be discontented had always seemed much richer a thing. To be restless, striving. That view was romantic. In truth, she was finding out, life was better lived in a tranquil pattern."

  • Amazon readers rating: from 86 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Master Butchers Singing Club at MostlyFiction.com



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

**Ojibwe reservation

With her husband, Michael Dorris:

For Young Readers:

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About the Author:

Louise ErdrichKaren Louise Erdrich was born in Little Falls, Minnesota in 1954 to a Chippewa mother and a German-American father. As a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe, she grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota, a town near a reservation, where both of her parents were teachers for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

While growing up, her father encouraged her and sisters to write stories by paying a nickel for each story. She was brought up listening to stories by her mother and maternal grandmother. She also credits her interest in writing to the lack of television and movie exposure.

In 1972, Erdrich earned a scholarship to Dartmouth College. This was also the first year the college admitted women and the year the Native American studies department was created. The department was headed up by anthropologist Michael Dorris who later became her collaborator and husband. In 1978 she enrolled in an M.A. program at John Hopkins University where she wrote poems and stories incorporating her heritage. After Erdrich received her master's degree, she returned to Dartmouth as a poet and writer-in-residence. In 1980, Dorris and Erdrich started successfully collaborating and by 1981 they were married. Together they raised six children, the first three were adopted. Sadly, in April 1997, Dorris committed suicide after having separated from Erdrich and allegations of child abuse.

In 1985, The National Books Critics Circle honored her as the year's best novelist. Her novels include the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Love Medicine and the National Book Award finalist The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, as well as poetry, children's books, and a memoir of early motherhood, The Blue Jay's Dance. Her short fiction has won the National Magazine Award and is included in the O. Henry and Best American short-story collections.

She lives in Minnesota with her children, who help her run a small independent bookstore, The Birchbark.

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