The Master Butchers Singing Club

The Master Butchers Singing Club

4.1 40
by Louise Erdrich

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"What happens when a trained killer discovers, in the aftermath of war, that his true vocation is love? Having survived the killing fields of World War I, Fidelis Waldvogel returns home to his quiet German village and marries the pregnant widow of his best friend who was killed in action." "With a suitcase full of sausages and a master butcher's precious set of knives…  See more details below


"What happens when a trained killer discovers, in the aftermath of war, that his true vocation is love? Having survived the killing fields of World War I, Fidelis Waldvogel returns home to his quiet German village and marries the pregnant widow of his best friend who was killed in action." "With a suitcase full of sausages and a master butcher's precious set of knives, Fidelis sets out for America, getting as far as Argus, North Dakota, where he settles. Over the years he works hard, building a business, a home for his family - which now includes Eva and four sons - and a singing club consisting of the best voices in town. The group embraces everyone, from the local banker to the town drunk, the sheriff, the other butcher in Argus, and an elusive drifter, part Ojibwe, part French, whose balancing act is a wonder to behold." What happens when the Old World meets the New - in the person of Delphine Watzka, a daughter of Argus whose origins are a mystery even to her - turns out to be one of the great adventures of Fidelis's life. 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 novel by Louise Erdrich.

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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

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

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
Product dimensions:
5.08(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.99(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Master Butchers Singing Club

Chapter One

The Last Link

Fidelis walked home from the great war in twelve days and slept thirty-eight hours once he crawled into his childhood bed. When he woke in Germany in late November of the year 1918, he was only a few centimeters away from becoming French on Clemenceau and Wilson's redrawn map, a fact that mattered nothing compared to what there might be to eat. He pushed aside the white eiderdown that his mother had aired and restuffed every spring since he was six years old. Although she had tried with repeated scrubbings to remove from its cover the stains of a bloody nose he'd suffered at thirteen, the faint spot was still there, faded to a pale tea-brown and shaped like a jagged nest. He smelled food cooking -- just a paltry steam but enough to inspire optimism. Potatoes maybe. A bit of soft cheese. An egg? He hoped for an egg. The bed was commodious, soft, and after his many strange and miserable beds of the past three years, it was of such perfect comfort that he'd shuddered when first lying down. Fidelis had fallen asleep to the sound of his mother's quiet, full, joyous weeping. He thought he still heard her now, but it was the sunlight. The light pouring through the curtains made a liquid sound, he thought, an emotional and female sound as it moved across the ivory wall.

After a while he decided that he heard the light because he was clean. Disorientingly clean. Two nights ago, before he'd entered the house, he begged to bathe in a washtub out in the tiny roofed courtyard, beneath the grape arbor. They built a fire to warm the water. His sister, Maria Theresa, picked the lice from his hair and his father brought fresh clothing. In order to endure all that the war necessitated, including his own filth, Fidelis had shut down his senses. As he opened to the world again, everything around him was distressingly intense and all things were possessed of feeling, alive, as in a powerful dream.

Quietness reverberated in his head. Ordinary sounds, people outside in the streets, seemed marvelous as the chatter of rare monkeys. A thrill of delight crashed through him. Even to put on his clean and vermin-free clothing was a task so full of meaning that the fastening of his grandfather's gold boar's-head cuff-links nearly made him weep. Breathing low, he collected himself, and stilled his tears with the power of his quietness. Ever since he was a child, when sorrow had come down upon him, he'd breathed lightly and gone motionless. As a young soldier, he'd known from the first that in his talent for stillness lay the key to his survival. It had carried him through the war as a pitifully green recruit of whom it was soon discovered that, from a sniping post, he could drill a man's eye at 100 meters and make three of five shots. Now that he was home, he understood, he must still be vigilant. Memories would creep up on him, emotions sabotage his thinking brain. To come alive after dying to himself was dangerous. There was far too much to feel, so he must seek, he thought, only shallow sensations. Now he tried to adjust. He must slowly awaken even to this childhood room he knew so well.

He sat down at the edge of the bed. On a thick shelf set into the wall, his books stood in lines, or stacked as he'd left them, marked with thin strips of paper. For a time, though his occupation was assured, he'd cherished the vision of himself as a poet. Therefore his shelves were stacked with volumes of his heroes, Goethe, Heine, Rilke, and even Trakl, hidden behind the others. He looked at them now with dull curiosity. How could he ever have cared what such men said? What did their words matter? His childhood history was also in this room, his toy soldiers still arranged on the sill. And his young man's pride: his diplomas and his guild papers framed on the wall. These things did matter. These papers represented his future. His survival. In the closet, his bleached, starched, and pressed white shirts hung ready to embrace him. His polished shoes waited on the shelf beneath for the old Fidelis to put his feet into them. Gingerly, Fidelis tried to slide his feet into the open maws of the stiff shoes, but they wouldn't go. His feet were swollen, tender from frostbite, peeling, painful. Only his hobnailed boots fit, and they were green inside and stank of rot.

Slowly, he turned to contemplate the day. His bedroom window was a long, golden rectangle. He rose and opened the window, using the ram's-horn curl of its handle, and looked out, over Ludwigsruhe's slow, brown river, over the roofs and dead late-fall gardens on its opposite bank, across a patchwork of tender, gray fields, and then a tiny complex of roofs and chimneys beyond. Somewhere in that next town's maze lived the woman he had never met before, but had promised to visit. He found himself thinking about her with a complex intensity. His thoughts formed questions. What was she doing now? Had she a garden? Was she gathering the final few dusty potatoes from a small, raised, straw-covered berm? Was she hanging out her laundry fresh and white on a piece of icy rope? Was she talking, over tea, to her sister, her mother? Was she singing to herself? And his own presence, what he had promised to tell her. How could he go through with it, and also, how could he not?

Eva Kalb, 17 Eulenstrasse. Fidelis stood before the blond-brick walkway, frowning at the frail cast-iron arbor that marked the entrance. The ironwork was threaded with the tough overgrowth of climbing rose stalks ...

The Master Butchers Singing Club. Copyright © by Louise Erdrich. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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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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The Master Butchers Singing Club 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 40 reviews.
EmiseKay More than 1 year ago
Louise Erdrich is an overall wonderful author, but the Master Butcher's Singing Club was very unique book, because usually Erdrich writes about Native American subjects. While she still mentioned Native American, they had a much smaller basis in this book. The book looked more at the difficulties of individual struggles, gay/lesbian struggles, and German-American struggles during WWII. The Master Butcher is a really touching story that simultaneously makes you hungry (literally), causes you to experience deep loss, and gives you hope through the characters. I really enjoyed the mythological twist on the character's names as well, especially Cyprian and Delphine, but also the mysticism of Native American culture.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have been reading Louise Erdrich for years and now I make a point to hunt her down when I visit the book store. Fidelis stole my heart from the beginning. As a great-grandchild of German immigrants I felt like he was sitting on a branch of my family tree. Delphine is the woman I wished I could be. So daring and honest her actions are not predestined as much as inevitable. The story moved briskly along making me laugh and cry until the all too soon end. Beginning at World War I and continuing into World War II, our heroes try to more than just survive as the try to make a living and protect the flawed people they love. Erdrich creates people who will live on forever.
Guest More than 1 year ago
We read this book as part of our book club. Although the writing style and character development may have been well done, the story was torturous for me. I thought the author made the book unnecessarily depressing. I only kept reading to see if the story could get worse. All but one in our book club felt the same way. I do recognize as I read the reviews that I am in the minority, but I want to warn others who don't want to end a book in a state of depression of the content of this book. At the end I did not feel moved, enlightened, or better off for having read the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is Erdrich at her best. She is a born story teller. The conversations in this book reflect her ability to put you into the the time frame of the story. Always in context. If you have never read Louise Erdrich before, you are in for a treat. Bet you will become an "author follower".
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best books I have read to date, and being an English major means I have read LOTS of books. Each character is so complex and the plot is full of twists and turns that keep you wanting more. It is beautifully written, so many loaded words and passages yet very easy to follow. Definitely not a book that I would ever have read on my own but after reading it for a class I will be reading more of Erdrich's books for pleasure. I would reccomend this to anyone.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book didn't initially jump out at me, but I absolutely fell in love with it! I truly missed the characters when I finished the novel. You will be engulfed in this book, & you will never guess the twist at the end!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read Lousie's husband's book called A Broken Cord and just had to read her work too. Wow! Every word has been chosen carefully. This book is outstanding and I loved the characters, plot, and attention to details! Because of my enjoyment in reading this book, I have purchased another book by the author!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was wonderful, held your interest from the first page...right up there with Maia, and Foxmask.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had never read this author before and stumbled upon this book. My gosh. It felt like it took forever to read because the characters were so rich and the story so vivid. It wasn't just that I couldn't put the book down, it's that I didn't want to leave the world Louise Erdrich created.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If Erdrich were to knit like she writes, I imagine hers to be a rich warm blanket, full of color and unexpected patterns, with a few stray threads hanging. Her descriptions of the great plains recall Cather, but with such affection for its inhabitants. I found myself wanting more detail from the supporting cast, but the ends that were left are enough for my imagination. A wonderful treat.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is beautiful. It is complete, it is hearty, it is engaging. You leave it feeling totally satisfied that you've had all of each wonderfully spun character. This is a masterpiece. I loved it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I bought this book - the first I've read by Ms. Erdrich - because of the short story (part of this book) that was included in the O.Henry Prize Stories. I wasn't disappointed. She made her characters come alive and gave vivid descriptions of North Dakota without becoming too wordy. There were a few times when I thought she could have explained more in the way of plot, but it was a good read overall.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am an unabashed Louise Erdrich fanatic. The Master Butchers Singing Club is further evidence she is indeed becoming a Master Story Teller. I have no insightful comments about the characters, story line, descriptive passages, contained in the book. It is compelling, thought provoking, entertaining reading. As I drew close to the ending, I did all I could to slow my pace and savor the experience. When I finished the book I had feelings that were similar to those that come from eating a fine meal with good companions, or spending all my passion making love with my wife. Satisfaction, contentment, gratitude with a tinge of sadness that it is finished, but a spark of glee at the knowledge that I will be hungry and passionate again soon. Unfortunately, I will have to wait several months before another Erdrich novel appears.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Too much to mention! This book is craftfully written. The relationship that occurs is glorious. The dialogue profound and amusing at times. It took a week to finish and I will start it again when I go skiing. If you love to read about relationships and being human you'll love this witty, fresh book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is defintely different from most of Erdrich's past work, but it is a beautifully written look at life in a small town during World War I. The characters are richly developed and knowing that some of this was based on Erdrich's own family makes it even more interesting to read.
PurplePrincess1946 More than 1 year ago
Louise Erdrich is a tallented writer who invites you to enjoy her books--which you certainly will. She can tell a story so well you don’t want the book to end. The characters make you want to learn more about them and are sad when there is no more story left.
vikingkim More than 1 year ago
After a while with this book I truly didn't want to finish it. But for some reason, I stuck with it. It seemed so depressing! I am glad I stuck with it. When I finished I wished there was more, and I laughed at the thought of almost leaving it one third read. What made me continue? I cheated - I read a synopsis of the rest of the book, and knowing how it turned out made me want to continue.
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dknc-2012 More than 1 year ago
An immigrant story spiced with murder. I love Erdrich style.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found this a great story while simultaneously learning some valuable history.
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