The Master Butchers Singing Club

The Master Butchers Singing Club

4.1 40
by Louise Erdrich

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Having survived World War I, Fidelis Waldvogel returns to his quiet German village and marries the pregnant widow of his best friend, killed in action. With a suitcase full of sausages and a master butcher's precious knife set, Fidelis sets out for America. In Argus, North Dakota, he builds a business, a home for his family—which includes Eva and four

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Having survived World War I, Fidelis Waldvogel returns to his quiet German village and marries the pregnant widow of his best friend, killed in action. With a suitcase full of sausages and a master butcher's precious knife set, Fidelis sets out for America. In Argus, North Dakota, he builds a business, a home for his family—which includes Eva and four sons—and a singing club consisting of the best voices in town. When the Old World meets the New—in the person of Delphine Watzka—the great adventure of Fidelis's life begins. Delphine meets Eva and is enchanted. She meets Fidelis, and the ground trembles. These momentous encounters will determine the course of Delphine's life, and the trajectory of this brilliant novel.

Editorial Reviews

Thomas Curwen
Poignant in the mysteries it evokes and patient with the questions it leaves unanswered, The Master Butchers Singing Club is a resonant work in which songs -- yes, songs, for early on Fidelis forms among the men of Argus the book's eponymous singing club -- become a bridge, a benediction, to the other side. "How close the dead are," Step-and-a-Half reflects. "One song away from the living." It is a sentiment that haunts these pages.—The Los Angeles Times
Beth Kephart
Fourteen years ago, pregnant with my only child, I sat on a couch in a quiet room and fell under the spell of Louise Erdrich. Fell under the spell of Love Medicine and The Beet Queen, under the spell of stories that firmly and credibly established characters and voices that I had never encountered before. Here was a dirty, fictional place, located somewhere along the Minnesota–North Dakota border. Here was a town full of harsh wind and the smell of raw meat, full of the high drama—and sometimes the preposterous but always delightful melodrama—of her noisy cast of characters. I didn't want to be anywhere but the made-up Erdrich world that spanned so many generations. It was more alive than the lackluster town that lay beyond my window.

Great books cast spells. Great books surge and dance and suggest their own inevitability. Erdrich has written many great books while living her famously complicated life, and lately she's been writing ever faster, producing a string of adult and young-adult novels at a blinding pace. Her latest, The Master Butchers Singing Club, returns her once more to the now familiar question of just what happens when Native-American and European cultures share the same desolate, desperate place. The book's heroes, as always, are burdened with secrets. They are blackened with disappointments and regrets. Joy is the scarcest commodity, the macabre is ever present and dreams are often not even worth dreaming. There is a corresponding weight to these pages, a heaviness that only rarely dissipates, giving the book, in places, an airless quality, a sense that this particular cast of characters may finally be too trapped inside their own overly damaged psyches.

That is not to suggest that things don't happen in The Master Butchers Singing Club, because many things do. At the heart of the story lies Fidelis Waldvogel, a trained German sniper who, upon returning from World War I, finds and marries the pregnant lover of his best friend, who was killed in action. Seeking to make a good life for Eva and her son, Fidelis journeys to the United States, takes a train across the country and settles down in Argus, North Dakota, to the hard life of a butcher. Eventually Eva and her son, Franz, join him there, overwhelming Fidelis with a feeling he finds impossible to express: "Fidelis felt the emotion of love move through his body like a great, rough, startling beast.... When a man of such strength lets himself be overcome the earth of his being shudders. He is immensely alone. Eva might have understood Fidelis then, if he'd had the courage to elaborate, but since he didn't she merely smiled into his face, kissed him and decided with a certain bravado that although there was not a damn thing of interest or value in sight, there would be."

It is as Fidelis' helpmate in the meat shop that Eva encounters Delphine Watzka, the daughter of a slovenly drunk who recently has been touring the country as a member of a two-person performance act. Argus is Delphine's home, and despite the shame that comes with being Roy Watzka's daughter, Delphine has a sturdy determinedness about her, a practical economy that invites Eva's interest and eventually binds the two women in a truly beautiful—and beautifully rendered—friendship. Soon Delphine and Eva are working side by side in Fidelis' shop, overseeing the meats and the customers and keeping watch over the four sons who eventually comprise Eva and Fidelis' family. These passages contain some gorgeous writing, some truly resonant scenes.

The numerous subplots involve Delphine's gay companion, the town's female undertaker, the lusting sheriff, Roy's sordid past, Fidelis' old-maid sister, a terrible murder, a singing club, the escapades of children, World War II and a traveling woman named Step-and-a-Half. If that sounds like too much, it probably is—especially toward the end, when one senses that Erdrich is working very hard to tie up so many loose ends, to somehow jolt her readers with surprising revelations. The various subplots also interfere with the emotional development of the story; as potentially fabulous as some of these characters are, only three—Eva, Delphine and the second son, Markus—ultimately rise above the stuff of caricature in a lasting, meaningful way.

In The Master Butchers Singing Club, Erdrich is at her finest when painting the domestic scenes between Eva and Delphine, when depicting the soul of a heartbroken boy. She is at her best when she makes her language sing, when she makes the snow fall like this: "Snow is a blessing when it softens the edges of the world, when it falls like a blanket trapping warm pockets of air. This snow was the opposite—it outlined the edges of things and made the town look meaner, bereft, merely tedious, like a mistake set down upon the earth and only half erased." Erdrich is a genuinely talented writer; she has changed the landscape of fiction forever. This novel, however, sometimes sags beneath its own weight, making this reader long for sunnier days in Argus.
Publishers Weekly
Erdrich's quiet, gentle voice is so soft, it's as if she's carefully reading a bedtime story. Yet this novel would not put anyone to sleep. Woven with intrigue, romance, death, sex and humor, it's an emotionally complex tale of European immigrants who have settled in the fictional town of Erdrich's previous novels, Argus, N.Dak. Bordering on magical realism, this marvelous yarn introduces a world of rich, expansive imagery and an abundance of memorably compelling characters. There's Delphine, who acts as a human table for her lover, Cyprian, a lesbian Ojibwa balancing artist. Delphine cares for her father, Roy, an alcoholic accused of neglectfully murdering an entire family. And then there's Fidelis, a former sniper for the German army who is now the singing butcher of the title. Although some breaks in cadence occur throughout the reading-it seems almost as if Erdrich is seeing the material for the first time-her soft style gradually blends with the story and, rather than seeming inappropriate, becomes invisible. Simultaneous release with the HarperCollins hardcover (Forecasts, Dec. 23, 2002). (Feb.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In a richly constructed and descriptive narrative, World War I veteran Fidelis Waldvogel moves from Germany with a suitcase full of sausages and a set of butcher's knives to Argus, ND, after marrying the widow of his best friend. Combining mystery, romance, and social commentary, Erdrich's novel traces Fidelis's life with Eva and their four sons as it entangles with that of Delphine Watzka in an exploration of love, loss, sacrifice, and strength. The novel starts slowly, but the author, reading her own work, eventually creates a full cast of major and minor characters who are charmingly flawed and ultimately unforgettable. Highly recommended.-Joyce Kessel, Villa Maria Coll., Buffalo, NY Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
The New York Times
The novel is more naturalistic and more conventional that the author's earlier Argus stories -- fewer excursions into magical realism, fewer flights of fancy -- but every bit as emotionally resonant. Through the prism of one family's tangled history, Ms. Erdrich gives us an indelible glimpse of the American dream and the disappointments that can gather in its wake. Michiko Kakutani
Kirkus Reviews
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 (thehapless 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.

Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection; author tour

Vanity Fair
“Louise Erdrich hits every note in THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB”
Los Angeles Times Book Review
“[A] magnificent tale … poignant in the mysteries it evokes and patient with the questions is leaves unanswered.”
Charlotte Observer
“Erdrich is an abundantly gifted storyteller, with a penchant for meticulous detail and tremendous empathy for her characters.”
Washington Post Book World
“An enrapturing plunge into the depths of the human heart.”
Kansas City Star
“A brilliantly layered look at war’s costs …Daring, graceful, comprehending and, rooted in the great plains, uniquely American.”
“Grand and generous fiction… Erdrich’s most sweeping and ambitious yet.”
O magazine
“A substantial, beautifully composed, confident work of art … both expansive in its reach and intimate in its intense focus.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Lush and stark … employing vivid imagery, deft description and dialogue that flows … Stunning language.”
Entertainment Weekly
“Appropriately grim and thoughtful, THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB is also full of tenderness and life … Marvelous.”
Miami Herald
“THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB can surely be cast as the most wrenching and wise of Erdrich’s nine novels.”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“[A] masterpiece… Erdrich never hits a false note.”
“Louise Erdrich’s rousing and radiant new novel THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB is all kinds of lovely.”
Boston Globe
“Miraculous …[Erdrich is] at the peak of powers as a writer … Her work is as melodious as ever.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“The Master Butchers Singing Club reveals on of our finest writers at the peak of her considerable powers.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Rich and vibrant …Magnificent.”
Denver Rocky Mountain News
“Delphine, the book’s central figure, is Erdrich’s most finely wrought and compelling character.”
Atlantic Monthly
“Satisfying and life-affirming.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Each moment and its particulars dazzles … Fidelis and firm-bellied Delphine and the rest [of the characters] are masterworks.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch
“[THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB] is marked by moments of true creative genius, exquisitely imagined and masterfully drawn.”
Michiko Kakutani
“Emotionally resonant.”
Bob Minzesheimer
“Not since Ricard Russo’s 2001 novel EMPIRE FALLS ... have I enjoyed the company of such memorable characters.”
O Magazine
"A substantial, beautifully composed, confident work of art … both expansive in its reach and intimate in its intense focus."

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HarperCollins Publishers
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What People are saying about this

Michiko Kakutani
“Emotionally resonant.”
Bob Minzesheimer
“Not since Ricard Russo’s 2001 novel EMPIRE FALLS ... have I enjoyed the company of such memorable characters.”

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