The Master Butchers Singing Club adds another family saga to those of the Argus, North Dakota, residents whom Louise 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 which moves through the development of small-town culture in the upper Midwest at the twentieth century’s beginning to the Great Depression and culminates nine years after the end of World War II. Erdrich enlivens the historic cultural shifts by revealing her characters’ personal dramas of acquisition and loss. Her novel invites readers to consider the deep impact of death on the living and how one keeps one’s balance in the face of irreparable events. The novel presents a compendium of individuals coping with losses that compromise their senses of personal identity and belonging.
Erdrich’s genius for metaphor makes chapter titles allusions. For example, chapter 3, “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. 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.
Fidelis’s first act in the novel brings him home from the war feeling dislocated and dependent on the distance that emotional stillness gives him from the devastation he experienced as a soldier. “To come alive after dying to himself was dangerous,” as he reentered home life. His first compensatory act is to marry Eva Kalb, the pregnant fiancé of his dead friend Johannes. Fidelis and Eva’s love and connection make it possible for the two to face life after such devastating losses. He chooses to immigrate to the United States because he has seen a perfectly square slice of white bread and determines that the place capable of producing such a miracle must be the hope of the future.
His old craft as a master butcher and his father’s secret recipes for sausages carry him as far as Argus, North Dakota. He sells his suitcase full of sausage to pay for food and lodging from New York to the Midwest. As Fidelis makes his way to Argus, Delphine Watzka, a stocky farm girl from Argus, and Cyprian Lazarre, an Ojibway Indian, are discovering their affinity for each other and their desire to create an act that will support them and allow them to travel. Cyprian calls himself “a balancing expert.” Their act becomes a metaphor for all the novel’s actions in the largest sense.
Fidelis and Eva spend their lives poised between two cultures. The secret of Franz’s father’s identity, Fidelis’s craft acquired in Germany, and Eva’s lifelong love of the places, customs, people, and pastries she left behind counterbalance the success of their butcher shop and child rearing in Argus. Early in the novel, Fidelis founds a singing club like the one he remembers in his German hometown, Ludwigsruhe, and the men begin weekly meetings to harmonize and socialize.
Delphine struggles to get over the early childhood loss of her mother and the alcoholic incompetence of her father. Cyprian returns to a nation that exacted military service but refused him the right to vote even as a veteran. His immediate family is scattered, and those in Argus are people with whom he refuses to get involved. In addition to his ethnic otherness, 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. Her inkling of what she might gain occurs when she is drawn into Eva’s kitchen for coffee the first day she comes as a customer to the shop. In that room she senses the order and domestic tranquility she had longed for: “She experienced a fabulous expansion of being.” That sense of possibility leads the women into fast friendship, and Eva becomes a de facto member of the Waldvogel family, which grows to include four...
(The entire section is 1869 words.)