Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496
The Master Butchers Singing Club adds another family saga to those of the residents of Argus, North Dakota, whom Erdrich’s readers have been getting to know since the 1980’s. Fidelis Waldvogel’s return from World War I in 1918 and his emigration from Germany in 1922 begin a narrative that moves through the development of small-town culture in the upper Midwest at the twentieth century’s beginning to the Great Depression; it culminates nine years after the end of World War II.
Erdrich’s genius for metaphor is employed in her creation of chapter titles. For example, chapter three, “The Bones,” begins with Argus’s structure as a town; the framework of Fidelis’s life shifts when Eva arrives with “their” son; Fidelis opens a butcher shop which schedules his life through work; Cyprian and Delphine establish a fake marriage to mollify the townspeople; and Roy is found wallowing in filth and confusion. The chapter’s events allude to bones’ functions as support, and other chapter titles suggest metaphors for memory, time, and patterns of connection in human lives.
Early in the novel, Fidelis founds a singing club like the one he remembers in his German home, Ludwigsruhe, and the men begin weekly meetings to harmonize and socialize. Delphine struggles to negotiate the early childhood loss of her mother and the alcoholic incompetence of her father. Cyprian struggles with his homosexual desires. Confronting Cyprian after she discovers him in an encounter with a man, Delphine means to remind him of their one night of passion, but instead she asks, “How do you balance?” Delphine and Cyprian tour successfully with a vaudeville group and traveling circus until Delphine needs to return to Argus and quiet her worries about her father, Roy Watzka. Argus then becomes the backdrop for how the two couples struggle for equilibrium.
The couples’ lives mingle when Delphine begins to help out in the butcher shop. She is drawn into Eva’s kitchen for coffee the first day that she comes to the shop as a customer, and in that room, she senses the domestic tranquillity she had longed for. Eva becomes fatally stricken with cancer, and Delphine nurses her friend through a painful death. All the while she and Cyprian maintain the charade of marriage while they live nearly platonically. Erdrich introduces two eccentrics: Tante Maria Waldvogel, Fidelis’s embittered spinster sister, and Step-and-a-Half, a wandering collector of junk. Gradually the plot becomes more about how the women manage to maintain order and live than how the men prosper.
Finally, Fidelis proposes to Delphine, and she is free to accept him. She has been a surrogate mother for his sons and has achieved a respected place in Argus through her economic ways, her efficient way of meeting her responsibilities, her steady presence, and her wide reading. The novel is weighted with the vision of what it means to survive and achieve balance in the world as one finds it, not as one wishes it.
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