The acclaimed author Louise Erdrich, who is most famous for novels drawing on her Native American heritage, focuses her 2003 book, The Master Butchers Singing Club
, on the German-American part of her heritage. Following the lives of several families in a small town in North Dakota, the novel opens in the aftermath of WWI and spans the interwar decades. Erdrich explores German-American cultural traditions and their expression in the face of Germany’s enemy status during both World Wars. The novel addresses themes of family, blurred or multiply-allegiant identity, divided loyalties, and betrayal.
At the end of World War I, Fidelis Waldvogel, a German sniper, comes back to his home town to tell Eva Kalb, the pregnant fiancée of his best friend, Johannes, that Johannes was killed in battle. Fidelis had promised the dying Johannes to marry Eva in his stead in order to provide for her and the baby, and Eva agrees on the spot to marry Fidelis. After the wedding, Fidelis returns to his trade and vocation – butchery.
Post-war Germany is in an economic shambles, so Fidelis decides to immigrate to America. He packs up his knives and a suitcase full of sausages he plans to sell in order to finance his way to Seattle. However, the sausages run out in North Dakota, so he sets up a butcher shop in the small town of Argus. Fidelis is a master butcher whose shop is successful. In Argus, he finds a community of German immigrants and starts up a men’s choral group that sings songs from the old country. His hard work eventually pays off, and he is able to bring Eva and her son, Franz, to Argus to join him. They have three more children: Marcus, and twins Erich and Emil.
Argus is also the home of Delphine Watzka, who never knew her mother, and whose father, Roy, is the town drunk. As soon as she can, Delpnine leaves Argus to become part of a vaudeville act with Cyprian Lazarre, a Native American WWI vet. Delphine has romantic feelings for Cyprian but then discovers that he is gay. They continue working together and pose as a married couple.
Feeling responsible for her father, Delphine returns to Argus with Cyprian. Roy is now a completely nonfunctional alcoholic. In a quest to clean his filthy and stench-filled home, Delphine and Cyprian find the rotting corpses of two adults and a child in his locked cellar. As Delphine tries to figure out the identity of the bodies, she meets and befriends Eva, who hires her to work in Fidelis’s butcher shop and teaches her a few things about homemaking.
Eva is diagnosed with cancer. As she is dying, her sister-in-law Tante ("aunt” in German) Maria Theresa comes from Germany to help in the household. Delphine and Tante instinctively hate each other, with Delphine trying to make Eva’s last days as comfortable as possible, and Tante more concerned with how the rest of the town views the dying woman. The last straw comes when Tante throws away Eva’s prescription narcotics, the only thing keeping Eva’s horrific pain at bay because she finds Eva’s dependency on them shameful. On a quest to ease Eva’s suffering, Delphine desperately and futilely tries to find a doctor to prescribe more medicine, until finally Roy (who likes Eva because she is the only person in town who treats him like a human being) breaks into a pharmacy and steals morphine for Eva.
Despite Delphine’s promise to Eva that she would help raise her four sons, when Tante leaves, she takes the twin boys Erich and Emil back to Germany. Meanwhile, Cyprian leaves town to go back to performing. Delphine moves into Fidelis’s house to help him with the remaining two boys, and they eventually fall in love and marry.
The town sheriff, Albert Hock, has been investigating the bodies Delphine found in Roy’s house. They turn out to be the remains of the Chavers family. When he finds evidence that town mortician Clarisse Strub, whom the sheriff has spent his whole adult life sexually harassing, had been in the house, the sheriff tries to blackmail her into having sex with him. Fed up, Clarisse stabs him to death and escapes to Minnesota.
Eva’s death has shaken Roy into sobriety, but his health is irreparably damaged. As he is dying, he reveals that the bodies Delphine found were a practical joke gone wrong. Porky Chavers used to sing over Roy in Fidelis’s choir, so Roy locked Porky and his wife and daughter in the cellar to teach them a lesson during an alcohol-fueled bender. He meant to let them out in a few hours, but in his blackout drunk state simply forgot that they were there.
WWII breaks out, and Fidelis and Delphine’s newly formed family is horribly divided. His sons Franz and Markus enlist in the U.S. army, but twins Emil and Erich, who have grown up in Germany with Tante’s family, decide to fight on the side of Germany. Franz and Emil are killed and Erich is captured. However, when Fidelis and Markus try to visit him in the U.S.-based POW camp where he is being kept, Erich refuses to even talk to them.
After the war, Delphine and Fidelis visit Germany, where Fidelis’s hometown has built a memorial. On the way back, Fidelis falls ill and dies. At the end of the novel, Delphine learns the true circumstances of her birth: she was an abandoned foundling, whom Roy decided to raise as his own.