The novel is book-ended by WWI and WWII. It is a mystery with many twists and turns, but underneath the varied themes it feels as if it is mainly about love and romance, in all its varieties, and war, in its many phases.
Arriving home to Germany, after World War I, after three years of acting as a sniper, Fidelis is bruised inside and out. He has made a promise to a dying soldier, his friend Johannes, and he fulfills it by marrying his dead comrade’s betrothed. He develops a deep love for Eva, who is pregnant, and after her son is born he develops a deep love for the child named Franz. About three years after the birth, he decides to travel to America. He is now “the master butcher”, no longer a killer. He has the tools of his trade and little else when he winds up in North Dakota. Soon, however, he brings his wife and child to Argus, and although their life is hard, they are contented and devoted to each other. They raise three more sons, in addition to the first born who was fathered by his comrade in arms. Franz is the eldest son. After him came Markus and the twins, Erich and Emil.
Like Fidelis, Cyprian has also survived the war. He and Delphine are quite the couple. He is somewhat of an acrobat and she is his assistant. She has left her hometown farm, in Argus, to travel to Minnesota with him, to perform and make their fortune in sundry fairgrounds. Their story is told with humor, as we meet Delphine and Cyprian, who in all his glory is doing a handstand, naked, in front of a window to the street, which creates quite a stir which Delphine must calm. She is apparently a master at such things after growing up, motherless, with a father who is the town drunk and often had to be rescued when he did outrageous things. She does not know who her mother is since he will only tell her that she went away. He, however, worships a fuzzy picture of her.
When Delphine and her performing partner, Cyprian, return to Argus, they find her father in a drunken stupor, his home in a state of decay with an awful smell that they cannot dislodge, and then, ultimately, they find the bodies of the Chavers family. Somehow, they got locked in Roy’s basement and all three died there. Delphine’s close friend, from another time, is Clarisse, the town’s embalmer. Because of the buried bodies in the basement, they are reunited and their friendship blooms again. At the same time, she meets Eva, the wife of the butcher, who becomes Delphine’s friend and mentor, teaching her a trade and many facets of cooking and housekeeping. The butcher has brought some of the immigrants in the town together to form sort of a glee club similar to the one they had back home, and they meet and sing at regular intervals. Life settles down to a rhythm that is dependable and pleasant except for the fact that Delphine is unfulfilled in her relationship with Cyprian who prefers an alternate lifestyle.
The book tenderly investigates the relationships between people, and it will capture your heart as you develop real feeling for the characters and their struggles to succeed and carve out a place for themselves in this world. You can feel their pain and their happiness, and you can see them in your mind’s eye all those years ago, as they try to find that place for themselves with little else but the power of the strength in their bodies and the faith in their hearts.
The book is also about the variety of ways love can touch our lives. For instance: Delphine misses the love of a mother and a man; Cyprian misses the love of a man and doesn’t understand why he can’t love Delphine in the same way; Roy hungers for the lost Minnie’s love; Franz hungers for Mazarine’s affections; Fidelis misses Eva and the children miss their mother, Sheriff Hock suffers from unrequited love. Love can cause grief as well as ecstasy. It can give hope and create hopelessness. It lives in many shapes and they are all put under the microscope in this book.
The novel is about the variety of ways that we experience war. Throughout the book there is a theme of warring factions. There is also a prevailing theme, too, about the futility and injustice of war, in all its forms. There is, of course, the war between countries, the war that exists between friends when they have disagreements, the war between competitors in business, petty wars between relatives, there are often battle scarred husbands and wives who often have silly disputes that escalate, wars with disagreeable neighbors. Life and death are wars in themselves; the very struggle to survive or expire involves battles of many kinds with medical staff, well intentioned relatives and friends and oneself. There are wars or struggles over right and wrong, choice of lovers, laws and their enforcement. Not all wars involve weapons. Some are emotional and exist only within the lost soul. All of these are explored.
Friends may often become enemies, and later, friends again. This story is about a family torn apart by war when during World War II, some members of the family fight for the Axis and the Fatherland, while the other members fight for the Allies and America. They are fighting against each other because they are in countries with different ideologies and goals. Part of the family raised fully in America, identifies with her, the other part, living now in Germany, fights for America’s enemies. The futility of war is obvious since former enemies are now friends and former friends are now enemies, even today.
The book is also about the scars of life that people carry around with them, about the life-changing moments. Markus’ childhood accident, being buried under a hill when it collapses, and the death of his mom, scar him deeply. Delphine is scarred by the lack of a mother’s influence and the embarrassment of having the town drunk for her father. Eva is scarred by loss and disease. Mazarine is scarred by her terrible home life. Fidelis and Cyprian are physically and mentally scarred by war and injuries. The tale is colored by the effects of these scars on all of the characters.
There is a subtle theme of “stealing” also. Tante steals Eva’s medication, Roy steals morphine afterwards. He stole the life of the Chaver’s family. Tante steals her happiness from the lives of others and takes Fidelis’ children to Germany. Fidelis, in a sense, steals his dead buddy’s life when he marries Eva. Delphine steps into Fidelis and Eva’s life, pretty seamlessly. Franz’s love is stolen, briefly, from Mazarine, by his classmate, Betty. The mountain steals Markus’ boyish outlook on life. Clarissa steals Cyprian and the life of Hock. Hock tries to steal her love. Step and a Half steals Mrs. Smirkus’s baby when she was left for dead.
In the end, none of the characters were fully aware of what they could and could not achieve in life. Clarisse became a master embalmer, Roy once kicked his drinking habit, Eva made a success of Fidelis’ business and became a wonderful mentor to Delphine, and then Delphine became a mentor to Mazarine who had became a teacher and then a shopkeeper.
There are some ironies in the story that could have been developed more fully. Although Franz did not know he was the son of a Jew, and believes he is the son of Fidelis and Eva, both Germans, he goes off to fight against the Germans. The irony about the path that Eva and Mazarine both travel, losing their sweethearts because of war and before the child is born, is not dwelt upon either. However, the story develops so many themes well, it will just give the reader more to ponder.
The beauty of this book is in its down home values, its strong images of love and devotion, honor and morality. The picture of a child defying all odds in order to take his mom up in a plane, to make her happy, as she lays dying, is incredibly moving. The idea of Eva’s vision, in which she decides she is part of everything, even after she dies, having nothing to do with religion or anything else, but simply her idea of how it is, becomes a significant message of the book. Eva feels strongly about this, especially after her plane flight. She knows life will continue to change; it will go on, wonderful things will be discovered that they can’t imagine, but her essence will continue and be part of it. What a wonderful way to think about life and death.
These are plain folk with simple values and a strong determination to succeed at something, to work hard and achieve. It is the old way, and today, this drive and energy does not seem so apparent in our young people. More often we see them waiting for someone to give them an opportunity, rather than see them searching for their moment of opportunity.
The story transcends issues of race, religion and sexuality since it very calmly includes interracial relationships, homosexuality, bisexuality and inter-religious unions without undue sentiment or concern.
The book is a wonderful choice for a book club discussion because of the many issues it elaborates.