The Master Butchers Singing Club
by Louise Erdrich
"Delphine didn't know that there were times when Fidelis showed a certain tenderness to his sons, times he sang to them. When they had trouble sleeping, when they were very small, when Eva asked him to, and when they were ill, he sang the old German lieder to them in a restrained voice that filled the room with a comforting resonance in which they felt protected." (p 290)
Four people are introduced in the first two chapters of this historical romance. Four people whose story will comprise the rest of the novel: Fidelis and Eva, and Cyprian and Delphine. Yet, the true center of the novel will be Delphine Watzka for it is her story that will intertwine with all the rest and it is her character that you as the reader will come to love and admire.
We meet Fidelis Waldvogel, a German sniper, at the end of World War I as he returns to his hometown in Germany. Fidelis seeks out Eva Kalb, the pregnant fiancée of his dear friend, Johannes, and after informing her that her fiancé has died in the war he shares his promise to Johannes that he would marry and take care of her. Fidelis, a butcher by trade, leaves Germany by himself to emigrate to the United States in order to escape the immense poverty brought on by the war. His limited funds and sausages take him as far as Argus, North Dakota. Working for the local butcher and then setting up his own butcher shop in Argus he is able to send for his wife, Eva, and her child, Franz.
Delphine Watzka is the daughter of Roy Watzka, the town drunk, who grew up in Argus, North Dakota. Delphine never met her mother and leaves the town to become a vaudeville performer soon meeting Cyprian, a World War I veteran, with whom she enters a unique relationship. The two make money from an act where Delphine performs as a table upon which Cyprian balances. After accidentally observing Cyprian engaging in sex with another man their relationship changes, but the two remain together, posing as a married couple. They eventually return to Argus and settle there. From this point on Delphine's life becomes intertwined with that of Eva and the family she is raising with Fidelis.
Louise Erdrich enriches the story with family mysteries and the inevitable observations of small town Midwestern life. As someone who grew up in a small Midwestern community in the 1950s I felt at home with the people of Argus. Delphine ultimately takes a job in Fidelis' Butcher Shop which demands hard work from Fidelis and Delphine as well. Delphine learns domestic skills from Eva and this proves useful as Eva contracts a cancer and in spite of treatments and help from her sister-in-law, Tante, she dies. Tante and Cyprian both leave Argus. Tante returns to Germany with Fidelis' youngest sons, the twins Erich and Emil. Cyprian returns to the life of the traveling performer. Both departures pave the way for a romance between Delphine and Fidelis, which eventually results in marriage.
These and other developments in the community leave Delphine and Fidelis together and eventually they marry, cementing a relationship that develops slowly with Delphine first becoming a replacement mother for Fidelis' four boys. Their story and the impact on their lives of the Second World War lead to a heartwarming denouement as the family enters the decade of the fifties.
The author demonstrates superlative story-telling skills in this sage of four decades in the lives of the four people we met at the beginning of the novel. Her character development and understanding of the psychology of relationships makes this a wonderful book. It was my introduction to the writing of Louise Erdrich and I only regret that I had not discovered the charms of Fidelis, the Master Butcher, and his Singing Club sooner.
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