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Staging Erdrich

The acclaimed novelist's Master Butchers Singing Club squeezes into the Guthrie

Staging Erdrich
Photo by Paul Emmel

The pilot begins with Louise Erdrich sitting at the Kenwood Café last summer, practically “in this very spot,” she says. She’s a regular here: The coffee shop shares a door with her store, Birchbark Books. She recommends the raspberry lemonade, and orders one for herself. Then she sits in front of the window to explain how her 2003 novel, The Master Butchers Singing Club, found its way to the Guthrie Theater, where it will premiere September 11.

Last summer, she says, the New York director Francesca Zambello was in the habit of camping out at the café. “I didn’t know who she was,” Erdrich says. Nor did Zambello recognize the 56-year-old who is perhaps Minnesota’s most celebrated living novelist. Erdrich doesn’t strive to be noticed. Today, for instance, she’s a study in gray: gray-brown linen shirt, flowing gray-green pants, gray-gray cloth-strap sandals.

Zambello was in town to direct Little House on the Prairie at the Guthrie. Erdrich, it must be said, is no fan of that pioneer fable. “Ma was a racist, and there’s no way around it,” she says. Little House never gets around to suggesting what it was like for native people, she says, to be “invaded by Pa and his ax.” So in her recent children’s novels, the Birchbark series, Erdrich has done it herself.

But Erdrich’s youngest daughter loved Little House at the Guthrie. More importantly, Zambello often meandered from the café to the bookstore—and snapped up the novels of Louise Erdrich. Including, fatefully, Master Butchers.

With Erdrich’s blessing (and advice), Zambello and Pulitzer-winning playwright Marsha Norman began condensing the sprawling family saga, set in the fictional town of Argus, North Dakota, between the world wars. There’s more singing and less butchering now. And that’s fine with Erdrich, who says Zambello “can do anything.” In fact, she says with a smile , glancing at her store, “If anyone buys books and reads them today, I instantly view them in this rosy glow.”

 

5 Things you didn't know about Louise:

1.  She and Michael Dorris once wrote romantic fiction under the pen name Milou North.

2.  She keeps notebooks on odd events to inform the strange twists and turns in her books.

3.  She runs Birchbark with her sister Heid, who won a Minnesota Book Award last year.

4.  The town of Argus has appeared in Erdrich’s books since her first novel, Love Medicine.

5.  In 1990, at age 35, she was named one of People magazine’s “most beautiful people.”
 

Read more about Master Butchers at mnmo.com/erdrich.
 


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