The Master Butchers Singing Club: A Novel

by Louise Erdrich

Hardcover, 2003

Call number




Harper (2003), Edition: 1st, 400 pages


Returning to his quiet German village home after World War I, trained killer Fidelis Waldvogel, accompanied by his wife, leaves to start a new life in America and finds his life irrevocably changed by a new relationship.

Media reviews Review Louise Erdrich's The Master Butchers Singing Club is a powerfully told story of love, death, redemption, and resurrection. After German soldier Fidelis Waldvogel returns home from World War I to marry his best friend's pregnant widow, he packs up his father's butcher knives and
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sets sail for America. ....
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User reviews

LibraryThing member kambrogi
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member PinkPandaParade
This being the fifth book I've read from the prolific Louise Erdrich, I was at first both disappointed and intrigued by her break from her normal Ojibwe dynasty that make up the residents of a fictional North Dakota town known as Argus. After the first few pages, though, I pleasantly discovered
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Erdrich had simply widened her character scope to welcome some interesting and likeable characters. Included in this new group is a family of German immigrants, headed by the master butcher, Fidelis, and his steadfast wife, Eva. On the other end is Delphine Watzka, a quietly determined woman who knows, with equal expertise, how to balance chairs on her stomach, how to take care of her town drunk of a father, and how to love Cyprian, a man who for his own reasons may not be as compelled to return her love. Add a few more equally memorable characters to this mix, not to mention a men's singing club, and you are left with lyrically compelling and highly memorable novel. This is not wholly a story about World War I and World War II, but the wars push their way to the forefront as overpowering aspects of Fidelis and Cyprian's recent past, and as overwhelming aspects of the future of Fidelis and Eva's four sons. Commingled with these conflicts are also conflicts of the heart and body --- a tempered love, a fatal affliction, a desire to care as well as to destroy. Erdrich, just like Delphine with her chairs, plays these elements in a delicate balancing act that creates a sometimes calming, sometimes electrifying flow of words and images. Rising above this flow, more strongly here than in any of her other novels, is the gift of song. Dedicating the book to "my father, who sang to me", Erdrich uses the power of a good story as a love song to the people and events that charm even the most charmless lives. Frequent readers of Erdrich may find themselves at a loss with this new cast of characters, though I actually was glad for the change. The humor of her other novels is also present here in smaller doses, and her imagery is vivid, at times almost arresting. As with other Erdrich novels, though, be prepared to take in many subplots that have within them a valid attraction. I find that I often develop favorite subplots or supporting characters, and sometimes have to remind myself of the others. I did not have to do so in this case, which leads me to believe this novel more compact in its presentation than previous novels. First-time readers of Erdrich need not be hindered by a lack of knowledge about Argus folklore; though the novel does lead to Erdrich's favorite literary shelter, the introduction to the town is skillfully rendered. In the end, however, it is hard to tell if the feeling readers are left with is bittersweet. The tidal wave that is supposed to consume the main characters in the end seems closer to a shallow puddle, which may or may not be what Erdrich intended in the first place. While this hardly takes away from the enjoyment of the novel, it does leave me wanting more.
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LibraryThing member lauriebrown54
This book follows a large number of characters: the master butcher Fidelis Waldvogel; his wife, Eva; motherless Delphine who has returned to her upper mid-western hometown and finds herself stuck; her partner, Cyprian, who loves her but prefers men; Delphine’s alcoholic father, who may have
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killed three people- but he can’t remember; Delphine’s best friend, Clarisse, who is the undertaker and is being sexually harassed by the sheriff; Step-and-a-Half, a junk collecting woman who has secrets; and the Waldvogel’s four sons. The story follows their lives and relationships from 1918 to 1954, entangled with each other in so many ways. One of the things that takes center stage in the book is the predicament of German-Americans as Hitler rose to power and during WW 2. There were divided loyalties, as the Waldvogel family shows. Families were torn apart as they were forced to choose between nation and family, and even fight family member to family member.

I’m of two minds about this book. On the one hand, the prose is just so lovely that reading it was a joy. It’s like looking through a jewel box. But on the other hand, despite the length, a lot of the characters seem to be fairly impenetrable. Delphine, even though she is the main character, we seem to only skim the surface of. Delphine’s best friend has a huge event happen to her, but the effect in the story is negligible. The reveal at the end is momentous, but we have no idea WHY Mazarine’s mother did what she did years before Mazarine was born. Was she unaware of her state? Did she not care? How did Mazarine manage to survive her lack of care? The book is not boring- far from it- but it seems to lack something. In the end, I wanted to know more about these people than the author gave us.
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LibraryThing member pajarita
Louise Erdrich likes to sneak up behind us and surprise us with what we already know but are trying to forget.

Death and life are the same. Our own lives lead us towards our own deaths as we live from the proteins that we harvest from those other living creatures killed for our nourishment. And we,
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ourselves, live and die for the nourishment of others.

That which we see around us is so much more than we suspect; but is hidden from us by, not only our own self-imposed illusions, but also by the deceptions imposed upon us by others for our own, and their own, protection.

This book plays out those realities in ways that confuse and deceive us so that we may then learn for ourselves that which we have forgotten.

This is one more gem; and Louise Erdrich keeps making jewelery.
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LibraryThing member ainsleytewce
This was one of my favorite books read in 2007. Louise Erdrich is at her vibrant, vivid best.Many of her previous novels were based on her Indian ancestors, this one focuses on the German immigrant side of the family. I had read The Childrens' Blizzard not long before, and books like these, along
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with Timothy Egan's dust bowl book, remind us westerners how may obstacles our pioneer and immigrant ancestors overcame. The book opens with Fidelis Waldvogel, a German World War I veteran who goes home to marry his dead buddy's pregnant wife, Eva. Soon he emigrates to America, carrying little more than his butcher's knives and a case of sausages, which he decides to parlay into a passage to Seattle. He ends up settling in Argus, North Dakota instead, and soon is successful enough to send for his bride and her baby, and eventually his sister as well. Delphine Watzka, meanwhile has been livng by her wits since leaving the home of her alcholic father, most recently travelling and performing in a Vaudeville act with Cyprian Lazarre, and enigmatic Indian who is presumed to be her husband or lover. They return to Argus one day, finding Delphine's father in even worse condition than usual, camping in a creek bottom, his house too foul even for him. They frantically begin cleaning and removing debris in search of the stench that is making the place uninhabitable, and eventually find it. This discovery and ensuing questions loom as a macabre shadow over the rest of the rest of the story , and it is not the only morbid turn the story takes. This is truly gothic tale that pulls no punches, about disease, alcoholism, the horrors of war, indeed some of the gravest aspects of the human condition. Yet Erdrich's lyrical, leisurely writing style makes what could have could have been a creepy oddity of a book truly a great American novel.
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LibraryThing member mzonderm
The master butcher's singing club of the title doesn't really figure into this book at all. Fidelis, the master butcher in question, does start a singing group in his new home of Argus, North Dakota, that's meant to reflect the master butcher's singing club he was a part of back in Germany, as a
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place where outside grievances can be set aside.

But this story is really about Delphine, a native of, though an outsider in, Argus. It's about her relationship with men, sort of, but really about what she discovers when she meets Eva, Fidelis's wife. In Eva, Delphine discovers the mother she never had, as well as a best friend. That Delphine comes to love Eva's family as her own is fortunate when Eva is struck with a massive tumor. Delphine nurses her until her death and then cares for Fidelis and their sons.

All of this makes for a story that is lovingly told. What threw me for a loop, though, was at the very end of the book when the truth about Delphine's mother is revealed to the reader, but not to Delphine herself. Although I was vaguely interested to have this mystery cleared up, I don't really think it was necessary to the story at all. By including it at the end, it seemed as though we were supposed to think that this revelation was the whole point of the story, rather than an incidental part of the character Delphine became. The answer provided excellent closure to the story as a whole, but part of me wishes Erdrich had finished the book without it.
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LibraryThing member cbl_tn
At the close of the Great War, young German butcher Fidelis Waldvogel marries his dead friend's fiancee, Eva, and emigrates to the United States. Fidelis eventually owns his own butcher shop in small town Argus, North Dakota. Meanwhile, Delphine Watzka, daughter of the town drunk, returns home with
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her partner from a traveling acrobatic show. When Delphine meets Eva in the butcher shop, she sees in Eva the mother she's been longing for all her life. Their relationship is cut short by tragedy, but Delphine continues to be drawn into the Waldvogel's family circle.

I loved the experience of reading this book, and I didn't want it to end. Now that I reflect on it, I'm not sure I understand what Erdrich was trying to do with this book. Death is a recurring theme; burial even more so. The dead are buried. The living are buried alive. Bones are buried. Emotions are buried. Secrets are buried. The things that are buried don't always stay buried. I liked this book more than The Plague of Doves, but I think Erdrich can do better than this.
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LibraryThing member nycxile
An admirable reconstruction of life in North Dakota post WWI. Fidelis Waldvogel's immigration from Germany and his determination to pay his way across America with his skill as a butcher and the sausages he brought from Germany is a good example of early 20th Century immigrants. They came to
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America with only what they could carry and the willingness to make a new life for themselves.
With subtle grace, Erdrich deals with the shame that came of being a first generation American child, the survivor guilt of some American Indians and a surprising view of the acceptance of homosexuality at that time and place.
The underlying story is intriging, the plot is interesting, if not compelling, and the characters are believable, but lack depth.
A nice book, but not exceptional.
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LibraryThing member marysargent
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.
LibraryThing member lyzadanger
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member pdebolt
There is a clear sense of the uniqueness of the European-born and Native American characters living in close proximity to each other in the unlikely setting of North Dakaota. The depictions of Eva and Delphine are particularly well done, leaving the reader with a sense of their unique identities
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and histories. There is a generosity of spirit between these two characters and a sense that they were fated to be an inherent part of each other's lives before they met. Erdrich's descriptions are extremely well done, allowing us as readers to get a full sense of the characters and the landscape in which they interact. This is a wonderful book wtih passages to be savored.
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LibraryThing member arouse77
somehow, with this book, i felt the setting most particularly a character. the spare and arid emotional lives of these people are played out in a setting that is flat and lonesome and empty, yet still sustains life.

our main character Delphine is a woman out of her place, yet contented there in
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strange and compelling ways. whip smart, driven, and capable, she inhabits a world where these traits seem few and far between. her emotional life is complex and rich, but seems only to reveal an inherent longing that is clearly unquenchable.

an absorbing character study as well as a reflection on the cultural evolution between the two world wars, this novel had much to offer in its depiction of a simple life with extraordinary moments scattered throughout. beautiful evocative language, lovely altogether.

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LibraryThing member atheist_goat
I tussled with whether or not to read this for a long time, since I think everything she's written since The Bingo Palace is wincingly, embarrassingly bad. Well, she's got her magic back: this is wonderful.
LibraryThing member npl
Fidelis Waldvogel, a WWI sniper and master butcher with a magnificent voice, emigrates from Germany to America, settling in the fictional town of Argus, North Dakota. His wife Eva and her young son (fathered by his best friend killed in the war) later join him, and the family grows while his
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butcher shop thrives. The town’s cast of vividly drawn characters counterpoints their story — Delphine, the daughter of the town drunk, her homosexual husband and acrobat Cyprian, the eccentric rag-picker Step-and-a-Half, etc. Surprising secrets are hidden within these and other townsfolk in this elegantly written, expansive story of America between the Wars.
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LibraryThing member nevusmom
Beautifully written tale of a post WWI German immigrant to a small town in North Dakota, his family, and a young woman whose life becomes intertwined with theirs. The Singing Club is mentioned off-handedly from time to time, but it is far from the focus of the story. What struck me was how truly
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strong the characters were, each in their own way. This book wasn't what I expected, but it pulled me in and compelled me to keep reading. The last chapter was a surprise. I will be recommending this book to my fiction loving friends!
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LibraryThing member cynsimo5
Words like Adventure, mystery, enchanted, momentous, trajectory all promise a great story. Although the language is beautiful, the story never lives up to its potential. It builds, then falls flat. I was expecting something momentous but found mundane. I suppose there isa metaphor for life in there
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but I didn't want a metaphor, I was looking for a story.
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LibraryThing member busymom51
A densely packed novel spanning the miles and years from post WWI Germany to North Dakota just after WWII. Rich characters with stories of desperation, horror and ultimately deep connections of love and duty. Description is this book's strongest suit, bringing us face to face with the sights,
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sounds and even smells of a small town and all of its quirky people and locations. Emotions are checked, conversations are terse. Yet the power of the story is forceful enough to leave an indelible impression on the reader's
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LibraryThing member keely_chace
This novel, which stretches from late World War I Germany to the post-World War II years in a small North Dakota town, centers on the character of Delphine, a motherless woman who unexpectedly finds herself becoming wrapped up in the family of a man named Fidelis, the singing German-American
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butcher from whom the book draws its title. The novel features gorgeous writing with poetic flourishes, engrossing characters, and a sprawling but engaging story. I'll definitely be reading more by Erdrich.
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LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
The novel is book-ended by WWI and WWII. It is a mystery with many twists and turns, but underneath the varied themes it feels as if it is mainly about love and romance, in all its varieties, and war, in its many phases.

Arriving home to Germany, after World War I, after three years of acting as a
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sniper, Fidelis is bruised inside and out. He has made a promise to a dying soldier, his friend Johannes, and he fulfills it by marrying his dead comrade’s betrothed. He develops a deep love for Eva, who is pregnant, and after her son is born he develops a deep love for the child named Franz. About three years after the birth, he decides to travel to America. He is now “the master butcher”, no longer a killer. He has the tools of his trade and little else when he winds up in North Dakota. Soon, however, he brings his wife and child to Argus, and although their life is hard, they are contented and devoted to each other. They raise three more sons, in addition to the first born who was fathered by his comrade in arms. Franz is the eldest son. After him came Markus and the twins, Erich and Emil.

Like Fidelis, Cyprian has also survived the war. He and Delphine are quite the couple. He is somewhat of an acrobat and she is his assistant. She has left her hometown farm, in Argus, to travel to Minnesota with him, to perform and make their fortune in sundry fairgrounds. Their story is told with humor, as we meet Delphine and Cyprian, who in all his glory is doing a handstand, naked, in front of a window to the street, which creates quite a stir which Delphine must calm. She is apparently a master at such things after growing up, motherless, with a father who is the town drunk and often had to be rescued when he did outrageous things. She does not know who her mother is since he will only tell her that she went away. He, however, worships a fuzzy picture of her.

When Delphine and her performing partner, Cyprian, return to Argus, they find her father in a drunken stupor, his home in a state of decay with an awful smell that they cannot dislodge, and then, ultimately, they find the bodies of the Chavers family. Somehow, they got locked in Roy’s basement and all three died there. Delphine’s close friend, from another time, is Clarisse, the town’s embalmer. Because of the buried bodies in the basement, they are reunited and their friendship blooms again. At the same time, she meets Eva, the wife of the butcher, who becomes Delphine’s friend and mentor, teaching her a trade and many facets of cooking and housekeeping. The butcher has brought some of the immigrants in the town together to form sort of a glee club similar to the one they had back home, and they meet and sing at regular intervals. Life settles down to a rhythm that is dependable and pleasant except for the fact that Delphine is unfulfilled in her relationship with Cyprian who prefers an alternate lifestyle.

The book tenderly investigates the relationships between people, and it will capture your heart as you develop real feeling for the characters and their struggles to succeed and carve out a place for themselves in this world. You can feel their pain and their happiness, and you can see them in your mind’s eye all those years ago, as they try to find that place for themselves with little else but the power of the strength in their bodies and the faith in their hearts.

The book is also about the variety of ways love can touch our lives. For instance: Delphine misses the love of a mother and a man; Cyprian misses the love of a man and doesn’t understand why he can’t love Delphine in the same way; Roy hungers for the lost Minnie’s love; Franz hungers for Mazarine’s affections; Fidelis misses Eva and the children miss their mother, Sheriff Hock suffers from unrequited love. Love can cause grief as well as ecstasy. It can give hope and create hopelessness. It lives in many shapes and they are all put under the microscope in this book.

The novel is about the variety of ways that we experience war. Throughout the book there is a theme of warring factions. There is also a prevailing theme, too, about the futility and injustice of war, in all its forms. There is, of course, the war between countries, the war that exists between friends when they have disagreements, the war between competitors in business, petty wars between relatives, there are often battle scarred husbands and wives who often have silly disputes that escalate, wars with disagreeable neighbors. Life and death are wars in themselves; the very struggle to survive or expire involves battles of many kinds with medical staff, well intentioned relatives and friends and oneself. There are wars or struggles over right and wrong, choice of lovers, laws and their enforcement. Not all wars involve weapons. Some are emotional and exist only within the lost soul. All of these are explored.

Friends may often become enemies, and later, friends again. This story is about a family torn apart by war when during World War II, some members of the family fight for the Axis and the Fatherland, while the other members fight for the Allies and America. They are fighting against each other because they are in countries with different ideologies and goals. Part of the family raised fully in America, identifies with her, the other part, living now in Germany, fights for America’s enemies. The futility of war is obvious since former enemies are now friends and former friends are now enemies, even today.

The book is also about the scars of life that people carry around with them, about the life-changing moments. Markus’ childhood accident, being buried under a hill when it collapses, and the death of his mom, scar him deeply. Delphine is scarred by the lack of a mother’s influence and the embarrassment of having the town drunk for her father. Eva is scarred by loss and disease. Mazarine is scarred by her terrible home life. Fidelis and Cyprian are physically and mentally scarred by war and injuries. The tale is colored by the effects of these scars on all of the characters.

There is a subtle theme of “stealing” also. Tante steals Eva’s medication, Roy steals morphine afterwards. He stole the life of the Chaver’s family. Tante steals her happiness from the lives of others and takes Fidelis’ children to Germany. Fidelis, in a sense, steals his dead buddy’s life when he marries Eva. Delphine steps into Fidelis and Eva’s life, pretty seamlessly. Franz’s love is stolen, briefly, from Mazarine, by his classmate, Betty. The mountain steals Markus’ boyish outlook on life. Clarissa steals Cyprian and the life of Hock. Hock tries to steal her love. Step and a Half steals Mrs. Smirkus’s baby when she was left for dead.

In the end, none of the characters were fully aware of what they could and could not achieve in life. Clarisse became a master embalmer, Roy once kicked his drinking habit, Eva made a success of Fidelis’ business and became a wonderful mentor to Delphine, and then Delphine became a mentor to Mazarine who had became a teacher and then a shopkeeper.

There are some ironies in the story that could have been developed more fully. Although Franz did not know he was the son of a Jew, and believes he is the son of Fidelis and Eva, both Germans, he goes off to fight against the Germans. The irony about the path that Eva and Mazarine both travel, losing their sweethearts because of war and before the child is born, is not dwelt upon either. However, the story develops so many themes well, it will just give the reader more to ponder.

The beauty of this book is in its down home values, its strong images of love and devotion, honor and morality. The picture of a child defying all odds in order to take his mom up in a plane, to make her happy, as she lays dying, is incredibly moving. The idea of Eva’s vision, in which she decides she is part of everything, even after she dies, having nothing to do with religion or anything else, but simply her idea of how it is, becomes a significant message of the book. Eva feels strongly about this, especially after her plane flight. She knows life will continue to change; it will go on, wonderful things will be discovered that they can’t imagine, but her essence will continue and be part of it. What a wonderful way to think about life and death.

These are plain folk with simple values and a strong determination to succeed at something, to work hard and achieve. It is the old way, and today, this drive and energy does not seem so apparent in our young people. More often we see them waiting for someone to give them an opportunity, rather than see them searching for their moment of opportunity.

The story transcends issues of race, religion and sexuality since it very calmly includes interracial relationships, homosexuality, bisexuality and inter-religious unions without undue sentiment or concern.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
This novel begins in World War One, where the protagonist is a sniper for the German Army. After the war he returns home, marries his dead buddy's pregnant girlfriend, and moves to North Dakota, where he he runs a butcher shop and has various exciting times, including an incredibly poignant rescue
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of his son from a cav-in. The book tells of his butcher shop, his singing c,lub, and of Delphine, who cares for wfe before she dies and helps at the butcher shop. Two of the children, after their mother dies, return to Germany and of course end up in Hitler's Army. There is a lot of interest in the book, but also some disppointing crudity. Can you imagine a writer who finds it necessary to tell what a man does, in crude terms, when he uses the rest room? But such apses from enjoyable writing are not numersous--but are enough to make the reader wonder what the author was thinking when she makes it clear that she apparently does not know the word "urinate." But there is much in the novel to appreciate.
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LibraryThing member janismack
I thought this story was so original and well written. It's a deeply spiritual book that questions peoples faith and devotion to each other. Delphine was especially interesting and it was interesting to witness the changes she went through.
LibraryThing member jvandehy
The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich is a treasure. A big bold story about family, and what that means to her full force of characters in a small town in the early 20th century. A rich beautifully told story about German Immigrants, Native Americans and a small town in the Dakotas.
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LibraryThing member dara85
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.
LibraryThing member RavenousReaders
The story takes place over several decades in the fictional town of Argus, North Dakota. After WWI, Fidelis Waldvogel emigrates to America with his wife Eva and son. They set up a meat shop, Fidelis forms a sing club and the couple have 3 more sons. Delphine,who has been hired to help out in the
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shop, and Eva, begin a strong friendship. Delphine, a vaudeville performer with her lover, Cyprian has returned to care for her father, the town drunk. Louise Erdrich weaves a lyrical story with compelling charcters that you never lose interest in.

reviewed by: Janet
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LibraryThing member Castlelass
Fidelis, a former WWI German sniper, marries Eva, his deceased friend’s pregnant fiancé, and emigrates from Germany to Argus, North Dakota, to establish a butcher’s shop. Delphine, daughter of an alcoholic single father, meets Cyprian, a former WWI US Marine, and they create a traveling
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acrobatic act. They eventually return to Argus and pretend to be married to avoid gossip. Delphine and Eva become fast friends, and the storyline follows their converging lives from WWI to several years past WWII.

The strengths of this novel include deeply drawn characters and an unusual plotline. The characters are complex, filled with internal contradictions. For example, Fidelis is a butcher so he seems rather unfeeling in his work of constantly killing animals, but he possesses a beautiful singing voice and treats his family with tenderness. Even the minor characters exhibit a unique identity and emotional depth.

War and its ongoing impact are recurrent themes. Initially, war affects Cyprian and Fidelis, but the next war wreaks havoc on Fidelis’s sons. The plot includes such diverse elements as the discovery of three bodies in a cellar, a sexual identity crisis, and a tie-in with the Wounded Knee massacre. There are a few brutal scenes, mostly involving animals. Several mysteries get set up and are not always resolved. It is rich in period details and beautifully written. By the end, the author has taken the reader in unexpected directions and several secrets are revealed.
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