While most of Louise Erdrich’s works center on Midwestern Ojibwe life, The Master Butchers Singing Club takes its inspiration from the author’s German ancestors (one of whom is pictured on the hardcover edition pictured at left). This immigrant story features a wide cast of characters who are mostly neither good or bad; they’re mistake-prone humans more than anything else. As we watch the foibles of the residents of Argus, North Dakota and the Waldvogel family, the story touches on balancing, love, obligation, homosexuality, and many other topics as it meanders its way from the early 1920s to World War II.
This novel begins in the aftermath of World War I. Fidelis Waldvogel was a sniper during the war, though he has resolutely turned his back on his war experiences with one big exception: he proposes to the pregnant fiancé of his best friend during the war due to his strong, Teutonic sense of obligation. But Germany after World War I is a hard place for a young family to get ahead, so Fidelis packs a suitcase full of his family’s finest sausages and heads off to America. Fidelis is a major characters of the novel, but he eventually cedes narrative duties to Delphine Watzka. Delphine is the daughter of the town drunk. She tries to live this down first by escaping (she works for a long time as a human table in a balancing act), then by being one of the hardest working women in Argus.
What struck me most about The Master Butchers Singing Club was the way that Delphine and Fidelis balance their desires and their obligations. Early in the novel, while Delphine was still working the side show circuit, Erdrich describes the act in great detail. While Delphine’s partner would balance himself on a series of stacked chairs, Delphine would hold everything up so that the act could continue. She never really stops trying to balance things. Delphine tries to keep her alcoholic father out of jail and mostly sober, while helping the Waldvogels in their butcher shop and maintaining an unfulfilling relationship in spite of her desire for children. Fidelis has his own balancing act, as he tries to keep the shop going, raise his sons, deal with his awful sister, and so on. Watching these acts feels as tense as watching Delphine’s act. We wait for the metaphorical chairs to fall. They have to fall. It seems impossible that they can stay up in the air. Sometimes, I wanted those chairs to fall so that Delphine and Fidelis could be free to do what they wanted for a change.
Though Erdrich offers some very interesting and gruesome subplots to keep things interesting, the bulk of the novel simply follows Fidelis and Delphine for twenty some odd years. (The subplots revolve around a family that died while trapped in Delphine’s father’s cellar and the sheriff’s obnoxious failed courtship of Delphine’s best friend.) Readers of domestic literary fiction may enjoy this, as will readers who enjoy in-depth character studies. Readers who want more action in the plot or who get frustrated with characters who seem incapable of choosing to seek out their own happiness should stay away. Being a member of the later camp, The Master Butchers Signing Club is one of my least favorite Erdrich novels. Very little about this book satisfied me, possible because of Erdrich’s faithfulness to her ancestors’ story to the detriment of the novel. Now that I’ve finished, I wish she had decided to seize the opportunity to rewrite history and give us a happier ending.