Master Butchers Singing Club (Erdrich)

The Master Butchers Singing Club
Louise Erdrich, 2003
Harper Collins
389 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780060837051


Summary
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. (From the publisher.)

In Depth
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. (Introduction to the publisher's discussion questions.)



Author Bio
Birth—June 7, 1954
Where—Little Falls, Minnesota, USA
Education—A.B., Dartmouth College; M.A., Johns Hopkins
Awards—National Book Award; National Book Critics Circle Award; Nelson Algren Prize
Currently—lives in Minnesota


Karen Louise Erdrich is an author of 15 plus novels, as well as poetry, short stories, and children's books. She has some Native American ancestry and is widely acclaimed as one of the most significant writers of the second wave of what critic Kenneth Lincoln has called the Native American Renaissance.

In 1984, Erdrich won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her debut novel, Love Medicine. In 2009, her novel The Plague of Doves was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, and three years later, in 2012, she won the National Book Award for Round House.

Erdrich is the owner of Birchbark Books, a small independent bookstore in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The eldest of seven children, Erdrich was born to Ralph and Rita Erdrich in Little Falls, Minnesota. Her father was German-American while her mother was French and Anishinaabe (Ojibwa). Her grandfather Patrick Gourneau served as a tribal chairman for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Erdrich grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota where her parents taught at the Bureau of Indian Affairs school.

She attended Dartmouth College in 1972-1976, earning an AB degree and meeting her future husband, the Modoc anthropologist and writer Michael Dorris. He was then director of the college’s Native American Studies program. Subsequently, Erdrich worked in a wide variety of jobs, including as a lifeguard, waitress, poetry teacher at prisons, and construction flag signaler. She also became an editor for The Circle, a newspaper produced by and for the urban Native population in Boston. Erdrich graduated with a Master of Arts degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University in 1979.

In the period 1978-1982, Erdrich published many poems and short stories. It was also during this period that she began collaborating with Dorris, initially working through the mail while Dorris was working in New Zealand. The relationship progressed, and the two were married in 1981. During this time, Erdrich assembled the material that would eventually be published as the poetry collection Jacklight.

In 1982, Erdrich's story "The World’s Greatest Fisherman" was awarded the $5,000 Nelson Algren Prize for short fiction. This convinced Erdrich and Dorris, who continued to work collaboratively, that they should embark on writing a novel.

Early Novels
In 1984, Erdrich published the novel Love Medicine. Made up of a disjointed but interconnected series of short narratives, each told from the perspective of a different character, and moving backwards and forward in time through every decade between the 1930s and the present day, the book told the stories of several families living near each other on a North Dakota Ojibwe reservation.

The innovative techniques of the book, which owed a great deal to the works of William Faulkner but have little precedent in Native-authored fiction, allowed Erdrich to build up a picture of a community in a way entirely suited to the reservation setting. She received immediate praise from author/critics such as N. Scott Momaday and Gerald Vizenor, and the book was awarded the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award. It has never subsequently been out of print.

Erdrich followed Love Medicine with The Beet Queen, which continued her technique of using multiple narrators, but surprised many critics by expanding the fictional reservation universe of Love Medicine to include the nearby town of Argus, North Dakota. Native characters are very much kept in the background in this novel, while Erdrich concentrates on the German-American community. The action of the novel takes place mostly before World War II.

The Beet Queen was subject to a bitter attack from Native novelist Leslie Marmon Silko, who accused Erdrich of being more concerned with postmodern technique than with the political struggles of Native peoples.

Erdrich and Dorris’ collaborations continued through the 1980s and into the 1990s, always occupying the same fictional universe.

Tracks goes back to the early 20th century at the formation of the reservation and introduces the trickster figure of Nanapush, who owes a clear debt to Nanabozho. Erdrich’s novel most rooted in Anishinaabe culture (at least until Four Souls), it shows early clashes between traditional ways and the Roman Catholic Church.

The Bingo Palace updates but does not resolve various conflicts from Love Medicine: set in the 1980s, it shows the effects both good and bad of a casino and a factory being set up among the reservation community. Finally, Tales of Burning Love finishes the story of Sister Leopolda, a recurring character from all the former books, and introduces a new set of white people to the reservation universe.

Erdrich and Dorris wrote The Crown of Columbus, the only novel to which both writers put their names, and A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, credited to Dorris. Both of these were set away from the Argus reservation.

Domestic Life
The couple had six children, three of them adopted. Dorris had adopted the children when he was single. After their marriage, Erdrich also adopted them, and the couple had three daughters together. Some of the children had difficulties.

In 1989 Dorris published The Broken Cord, a book about fetal alcohol syndrome, from which their adopted son Reynold Abel suffered. Dorris had found it was a widespread and until then relatively undiagnosed problem among Native American children because of mothers' alcohol issues. In 1991, Reynold Abel was hit by a car and killed at age 23.

In 1995 their son Jeffrey Sava accused them both of child abuse. Dorris and Erdrich unsuccessfully pursued an extortion case against him. Shortly afterward, Dorris and Erdrich separated and began divorce proceedings. Erdrich claimed that Dorris had been depressed since the second year of their marriage.

On April 11, 1997, Michael Dorris committed suicide in Concord, New Hampshire.

Later Writings
Erdrich’s first novel after divorce, The Antelope Wife, was the first to be set outside the continuity of the previous books. She has subsequently returned to the reservation and nearby towns, and has produced five novels since 1998 dealing with events in that fictional area. Among these are The Master Butchers Singing Club, a macabre mystery which again draws on Erdrich's Native American and German-American heritage, and The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. Both have geographic and character connections with The Beet Queen.

Together with several of her previous works, these have drawn comparisons with William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels. The successive novels have created multiple narratives in the same fictional area and combined the tapestry of local history with current themes and modern consciousness.

In The Plague of Doves, Erdrich has continued the multi-ethnic dimension of her writing, weaving together the layered relationships among residents of farms, towns and reservations; their shared histories, secrets, relationships and antipathies; and the complexities for later generations of re-imagining their ancestors' overlapping pasts. The novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

Erdrich's 2010 book, Shadow Tag, was a departure for her, as she focuses on a failed marriage.

Erdrich is an enrolled member of the Anishinaabe nation (also known as Ojibwa and Chippewa). Erdrich also has German, French and American ancestry. One sister, Heidi, publishes under the name Heid E. Erdrich; she is a poet who also resides in Minnesota. Another sister, Lise Erdrich, has written children's books and collections of fiction and essays. For the past few years, the three Erdrich sisters have hosted annual writers workshops on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota.

The award-winning photographer Ronald W. Erdrich is one of their cousins. He lives and works in Abilene, Texas. He was named "Star Photojournalist of the Year" in 2004 by the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors association. (Adapted from Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews
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 - The New York Times


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.
Thomas Curwen - The Los Angeles Times

 

[With its] numerous subplots...one senses that Erdrich is working very hard to tie up so many loose ends, to somehow jolt her readers with surprising revelations.... [S]ubplots also interfere with the emotional development of the story.... 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.
Book Magazine


All of the virtues of Erdrich's best works—her lyrical precision, bleakly beautiful North Dakota settings, deft interweaving of characters and subplots, and haunting evocation of love and its attendant mysteries—are on full display in this superb novel.... With its lush prose, jolts of wisdom and historical sweep, this story is as rich and resonant as any Erdrich has told. 
Publishers Weekly


[R]ichly constructed and descriptive.... 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
Library Journal


The tensions between stoical endurance and the frailty of human connection, as delineated in Erdrich's almost unimaginably rich eighth novel.... [Erdrich has written] a sprawling anecdotal story crammed with unexpected twists and vivid secondary characters...crowned by a stunningly revelatory surprise ending.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
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?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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