“Where butchers sing like angels.”

The title of this book put me off. The Master Butchers Singing Club? It doesn’t quite have the whimsy of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, does it? And I’m a vegetarian! I’m also a pacifist, which turned out to be surprisingly much more to the point.

I took it from the library (wherever I go, I have a library card!) because, after a recommendation by a friend, Pauline, in England, I have really grown to appreciate Louise Erdrich’s writing. Strange that I should discover a new author of Anishinaabe (Ojibway/Chippewa) roots, as well as German, from an English friend. Or not so strange maybe, as reading is a commonwealth of years and countries, bringing the voices of people long dead and people I will never meet. Many of my friends lived many years ago in other landscapes.

The photo on the book’s cover is actually of the author’s grandfather, a German immigrant after WWI, though the story is fiction, not a telling of his story -or any other individual’s. One of the elements of her writing that appeals to me most is the dense texture of relationships. Even where there are one or two characters around whom the plot is constructed, the other people have their own lives (even interweaving through her other books) and are not just incidental or plot devices for the hero as so often happens. I still don’t understand how she weaves it to a pattern at the end but she does, powerfully. Half way through this, I puzzled about the title, which did not seem too relevant. The last chapters, however, tie stories, images, history of countries and their wars, and individuals together and make this a title I will not forget.

My father, who volunteered in the RAF in WWII said, frequently in his last years, “War is a bloody waste.” He claimed it accomplished nothing and was merely a step towards the next genocide or war. One of my first adult friends when I was little was Miss Peacock, who had a tiny shop next door to my grandfather’s shoe shop in Warwick, selling buttons and ribbons and tiny bits and pieces for sewing. I spent hours with her, having tea in her tiny home behind the shop and playing with her ribbons, but I was far too young to know about the death in WWI that robbed her of a marriage and children whom she would clearly have cherished. Looking back, she needed a child of her own like me- but I was oblivious then to what I was to her, only aware of how much I liked being with her. And how many ordinary people with dreams and loves are destroyed senselessly this way? People like this  are the complicated people with complex identities and relationships, whose lives are at the beginning and end of this book framed by WWI and WWII, (and including Wounded Knee,)

“where butchers sing like angels.”

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