The tensions between stoical endurance and the frailty of human connection, as delineated in Erdrich’s almost unimaginably rich eighth novel: a panoramic exploration of “a world where butchers sing like angels.”
It’s set mostly in her familiar fictional town of Argus, North Dakota (The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, 2001, etc.), the eventual destination of Fidelis Waldvogel, a WWI veteran who makes his way from Germany to America, where he prospers as a butcher and is later joined by his wife Eva and her young son (fathered by Fidelis’s best friend, fallen in battle). In a wide-ranging narrative, Erdrich counterpoints the tale of this “forest bird” (Fidelis is gifted with an incredibly beautiful singing voice) and his loved ones with the stories of several other sharply drawn figures. Foremost is Delphine, the daughter of Argus’s loquacious town drunk Roy Watzka, sunk in sodden unending mourning for his late Indian wife Minnie. Or so it seems—as Delphine comes home to Argus in 1934 accompanied by Cyprian Lazarre, a half-breed (and bisexual) “balancing expert” with whom she has performed in traveling shows, and whom Delphine does and doesn’t love, as her chance acquaintance with Eva Waldvogel blossoms into her greatest love: for Fidelis, who long outlives Eva, and his four sons, throughout the later war years and the devastating changes that overtake them all. Delphine is a great character (perhaps Erdrich’s most openly autobiographical one?): “a damaged person, a searcher with a hopeless quest, a practical-minded woman with a streak of dismay.” And she’s the moral center of a sprawling anecdotal story crammed with unexpected twists and vivid secondary characters (the hapless Roy and a ubiquitous rag-picker known as Step-and-a-Half are employed to particularly telling effect), crowned by a stunningly revelatory surprise ending.
There are echoes of Steinbeck’s East of Eden as well, in a thoughtful, artful, painfully moving addition to an ongoing American saga.