Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Little Faith: Nickolas Butler on Midwestern Family and Faith

Nickolas Butler is one of my favorite writers because of how his novels and stories address universal themes of both life in literature, but with a decidedly Midwestern bent. His debut novel Shotgun Lovesongs, one of my favorite books of the last 10 years, is about friendship and loyalty (and music!) in a small Midwestern town. His underrated short story collection Beneath the Bonfire is about Midwestern friendships and relationships. And The Hearts of Men is about what it means not just to be a good man and father, but what it means to simply be a good person — again, with characters so heart-achingly Midwestern, you can't help but love them even as they do terrible things.

Now, Butler is back with another terrific novel, Little Faith, about two big literary themes: Faith and family. And as is the case in his previous work, Butler creates a story illustrating how these two themes are cornerstones of Midwestern life. Specifically, this story is about how interconnected faith and family are, what happens why then run afoul of each other, and the consequences of losing first one and then the other.

Lyle is a non-grumpy old man — a semi-retired Wisconsinite, married to a woman named Peg. Their adopted daughter Shiloh and her six-year-old son Isaac come to live with them after Shiloh has been out and about, sowing her wild oats. Lyle is complete taken with his grandson, spending every possible moment with him. The opening scene of the novel is the two playing hide-and-seek in a graveyard — a wonderful metaphor for the big questions that follow about faith and religion, fate vs free will, and the meaning of life.

For Lyle, faith is simply a matter of inertia. He's long since lost any real belief in a god as a result of a tragedy with his and Peg's first child many years ago. Butler touches on big theological questions like "Why would a benevolent god let bad things happen to good people?" but doesn't dwell on them. He understands this is well-trod ground, and simply has Lyle consider these questions, sometimes talk about them with his buddies (one of whom is a Lutheran pastor), and then move on.

Lyle still goes to church every Sunday, but it's more out of habit than anything else. Shiloh, however, is a newly born-again Christian. And she soon lands herself in the thrall (both spiritually and personally) of a charismatic preacher of a new fundamentalist church. (I hesitate to call it a "cult," though it is definitely cult-like.) Eventually, she moves in with this preacher, leaving Peg and Lyle and taking Isaac with her. This is devastating for Lyle, but even more devastating is that Shiloh begins withholding access to her son. She makes Lyle admit he's lost his faith, and therefore thinks he's a bad influence on her son.

This conflict between faith and family comes to a head when Isaac gets sick, and Lyle begins to suspect Shiloh and her preacher boyfriend aren't getting him the care he needs, choosing to try to "faith heal" him instead. This brings up several more thorny questions regarding freedom of religion vs. the welfare of a child. Will Lyle and Peg bring Shiloh to her senses before something really tragic happens with Isaac?

This novel takes place over the course of one year, a quintessentially Midwestern cycle. Butler is absolutely in his element writing about seasons and landscapes — his descriptions of the apple orchard Lyle works in part time are some of my favorite passages in this novel. And overall, Butler is such a natural, easy storyteller. This novel, like his others, is composed in Butler's signature warm, inviting, downright comforting style. It's just a pleasure to read. And so if you enjoyed Butler's other work, or are a fan of writers like Richard Russo, Leif Enger, or Kent Haruf, you'll love this novel too.