The Master Butchers Singing Club

The Master Butchers Singing Club

by Louise Erdrich


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The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich

From National Book Award-winning, New York Times-bestselling author Louise Erdrich, a profound and enchanting new novel: a richly imagined world “where butchers sing like angels.”

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060837051
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 08/23/2016
Series: P.S. Series
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 167,049
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.94(d)

About the Author

Louise Erdrich is the author of fifteen novels as well as volumes of poetry, children’s books, short stories, and a memoir of early motherhood. Her novel The Round House won the National Book Award for Fiction. The Plague of Doves won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and her debut novel, Love Medicine, was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Erdrich has received the Library of Congress Prize in American Fiction, the prestigious PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. She lives in Minnesota with her daughters and is the owner of Birchbark Books, a small independent bookstore.


Minneapolis, Minnesota

Date of Birth:

June 7, 1954

Place of Birth:

Little Falls, Minnesota


B.A., Dartmouth College, 1976; M.A., Johns Hopkins University, 1979

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.

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.”

Reading Group Guide


While set, like much of Erdrich's work, in her native North Dakota, The Master Butchers Singing Club is largely centered around the European-Americans who settled the desolate plains, rather than the reservation-dwelling Native Americans about whom she often writes. Bracketed by the two world wars, Erdrich's multi-generational, character-rich story chronicles a group of ordinary small-town denizens as they encounter the extraordinary events--both in their insular world and in the larger world, too--that come to define their lives.

Having seen his best friend slaughtered in the trenches of World War I, Fidelis Waldvogel trudges back to Germany, his first mission to tell the dead man's fiancée the devastating news. When he arrives at Eva Kalb's house, Fidelis discovers that she is pregnant and, feeling almost as if he has become some part of the friend who died on the battlefield, he offers to marry her. With Eva, he begins to push back the horrific memories of what he has seen and done in the war and learns that he is meant to love.

Fleeing post-war poverty, Fidelis emigrates to America, his sights set on Seattle. A butcher by trade, the new immigrant is armed with a suitcase bearing only knives and a generous supply of sausages that he plans to sell to pay his fare. The sausages take him only as far as Argus, North Dakota, an unassuming town on the plains. Eva and her son, Franz, soon join him, and through relentless hard work, the Waldvogels establish a toehold in their new land. Fidelis, who sings like an angel, even starts a singing club among the men of the town. Eva gives birth to three more sons--Markus, and the twins Emil and Erich.

At about the same time, Delphine Watzka arrives back in Argus after touring the Midwest with Cyprian Lazarre as a sideshow performer. Though Cyprian loves Delphine, he is homosexual, and the two have settled into a complicated, uneasy domesticity. Delphine has been hesitant to return to Argus, where she long ago abandoned her drunken father, Roy. But when she and Cyprian get there, they make a horrible discovery that will tie them to the place. Beneath the floorboards of her father's house are the fetid, rotting corpses of a family that disappeared years before. Roy, it seems, has been too drunk even to realize the source of the horrible smell. Delphine all but burns down the house in an effort to purge it of its odor, but the question persists: who is responsible for the family's death?

Most persistent in finding the answer is the sheriff, Albert Hock. Intoxicated by his own sense of importance, Hock uses his power of intimidation to try to insinuate himself into the romantic good graces of Delphine's friend Clarisse. But Clarisse, who is the local undertaker, will have nothing to do with the supercilious young man. When she later kills Hock while warding off his advance, Clarisse is forced to disappear from town, leaving the already solitary Delphine even more on her own.

Delphine begins to work at the butcher shop and she becomes fast friends with Eva. As Eva painfully succumbs to cancer, Delphine nurses her with vehement tenderness. She locks horns with Fidelis's jealous sister, Tante, who, with Teutonic arrogance, withholds Eva's morphine. Surprisingly, it is Roy who rallies from his perpetual drunkenness to steal some of the drug for the dying woman. Eva's death proves a catalyst that temporarily cures Roy of his alcoholism. It also precipitates major changes in Delphine's life, as she has promised to take care of Eva's boys, and implicitly vows to take care of Fidelis as well.

Carrying out this trust will further pit Delphine against Tante, who has her own designs for the family. Markus, the most like Eva and Delphine's favorite, flees the home behind the butcher shop and moves in with Delphine and Cyprian. Markus has been scarred by the death of the girl he loved, one of those found beneath the floorboards of Roy's house. Franz, Eva's eldest son, spurns the love of Mazarine Shimek, a dirt poor local girl he has loved since childhood. As the 1930's wane, Tante convinces Fidelis that she should take the twins back to Germany. Delphine fights this decision, but only through the intervention of fate will she prevent Markus from the going on the journey. With Tante gone, and Cyprian having hit the road once more as a sideshow performer, Fidelis and Delphine are freed at last to consummate their long-simmering passion, and they marry.

As America becomes involved in World War II, Franz's love of piloting airplanes leads naturally to his enlistment in the Air Corps. Markus also enlists. Across the Atlantic, Erich and Emil are conscripted into the German army and the singing butcher, still haunted by his own time in the trenches, watches helplessly as his sons don opposing uniforms in another senseless war.

On the periphery of the drama, an old woman called Step-and-a-Half scours the back alleys of Argus for scrap iron and discards. Her own past, steeped in violence and despair, is a mystery to the townspeople. But she alone knows one secret--the truth about Delphine's origins that brings the novel to a startling and dazzling close.

Questions for Discussion
  1. "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." (p. 2) What clues does this passage give us about Fidelis's personality and his means of coping with tragedy later in life?

  2. Erdrich offers glimpses of both Fidelis's and Cyprian's experiences of war. How are they similar and different? What role did war play in developing each man's personality?

  3. Erdrich explores different kinds of strength in her novel, most significantly Fidelis's rigidity and Cyprian's ability to balance. How do the novel's themes draw on the differences between these two men's physical prowess?

  4. In her vaudeville act with Cyprian, Delphine becomes a "table," supporting Cyprian and a number of pieces of furniture on her torso. What is the significance of Delphine's role as a table? How does her strength impact the lives of those around her?

  5. Each of the main characters in the novel possesses a particular kind of power that both identifies them and helps them through difficult times. What are the various kinds of power Erdrich writes about? Is one kind better than another? What kinds of power do you possess?

  6. Fidelis and Eva redistribute the byproducts of their butchering throughout the town: to people, to animals, and to the ground. How is the theme of recycling scraps of life carried through? Who continues this cycle of recovering discarded objects?

  7. Fidelis's son, Marcus, narrowly escapes death when he is buried alive in a mound of dirt. What does this event tell you about Marcus, his father, and Cyprian? Who--and what--else is buried in this novel? What is Erdrich saying about earth, about death, and about life in this scene?

  8. How does Erdrich make use of the novel's setting? How does North Dakota's climate, history, and terrain impact the lives of Argus's citizens?

  9. Before she dies, Eva takes a plane flight over Argus with her son, Franz. During the flight, she has a revelation: "We are spots. Spots in the spot. No matter. We specks are flying on our own power. We are not blown up there by wind!" (p. 118) She goes on to say, "Death is only part of things bigger than we can imagine. Our brains are just starting the greatness, to learn how to do things like flying. What next? You will see, and you will see that your mother is of the design. And I will always be made of things, and things will always be made of me. Nothing can get rid of me because I am included into the pattern." How do these passages relate to Erdrich's themes of interconnection, power, and heritage? How might Eva's revelations run counter to the beliefs of her family and neighbors? How do they correspond to your own religious beliefs, or your philosophy of life? (119)

  10. On Roy's deathbed he confesses his part in the deaths of the Chavers family. Is it significant that he was angry with Porky Chavers for "singing over him?" If Delphine had known the truth when she first returned to Argus, what do you think she would have done? Why does learning the story make Delphine want to run away? Who, in the end, was responsible for these deaths?

  11. Does learning the truth about Delphine's parentage alter your impressions of her? Do you agree with Step-and-a-Half's decision not to tell her? How do you think Delphine would react to hearing the facts about her birth?

  12. "Who are you is a question with a long answer or a short answer," Delphine thinks when responding to Fidelis's sister's inquiry. How would you answer the question about Delphine or Fidelis or any of the other characters? How, if at all, has the book made you think differently about asking or answering that question?

  13. Why does Erdrich title the book The Master Butchers Singing Club?

  14. Why does Erdrich end the novel with Step-and-a-Half's story?

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The Master Butchers Singing Club 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 45 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.
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
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.
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.
llm822 on LibraryThing 6 days ago
I'm trying to read this book for the second time - just couldn't get into it the first time.
lyzadanger on LibraryThing 6 days ago
Until just moments ago, I was going to rate this four-and-a-half stars, but I've downgraded it to four. The reason? Not even 24 hours after I finished this book, I'm not really thinking about it anymore. It didn't stick with me.It was absolutely readable. Wedged somewhere in the comfort space between beach read and Joyce Carol Oates-ish familial angst, it never gave me a moment's regret for choosing it to read.The characters are strong and individualistic.The epic nature of the breadth of the geography and history that this novel covers is captivating. There are a few things that are hard to swallow, though. The character of Sheriff Hock? I can't believe any human being would think and behave in that matter. The passages of his dialog seemed to stand in stark, unpleasant contrast to the rest of the novel. It's almost as if someone else wrote his part. Someone with far less talent.I'm stalling here because I can't think what else to mention. Something about this book softened my brain a bit; I do have clear visions of what I've just read and experienced, but nothing seems to have come of it. But still: enjoyable.
dara85 on LibraryThing 6 days ago
This book has a little of everything: romance, mystery, murder and sex. I did find I had to read about 100 pages before I really got into the story. Keep reading it is worth it.
marysargent on LibraryThing 6 days ago
Really, really good. A lot of plot. Wonderful sensitivity to character. Descriptions of dying which seem so real, and yet, how can anyone know? Everything seems so right and so interesting.
kambrogi on LibraryThing 6 days ago
I was dazzled by this book. Louise Erdrich tells a tale of a German immigrant family landing in a small North Dakota town. At the heart of the tale is Delphine Watzka, a local resident and daughter of the town drunk, and her convoluted relationship with the immigrants and other quirky residents of the town. In the years following WWI and until the end of WWII, we have a picture of immigrant life, small town social fabric, and the coming together of ironic destinies that are both tragic and marvelous. Although at the end I was not sure I had understood all the elements of the plot and their resolution, Louise Erdrich¿s writing is powerful and her characters are simultaneously magical and real, making this a thoroughly stimulating and enjoyable 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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.