Midwestern fiction covers a lot of territory, and Nickolas Butler is right in the middle of it, setting his stories in western Wisconsin, right across the border from Minnesota, and peopling them with recognizable, regular folks, behind whose plain-spoken reserve and dry humor beats the heart of the country, at once practical and passionate, poetic and earthbound.
Like his acclaimed novel in stories, "Shotgun Lovesongs," and his novel-not-in-stories, "The Hearts of Men," Butler's new novel, "Little Faith," finds its characters in the middle of a drama not quite of their own making but partaking of all they've done, and all that's come, before.
Lyle Hovde, an older but not quite old fellow, is getting to know and growing to love his 5-year-old grandson, Isaac, whose mother — Lyle and Peg's adopted and only daughter Shiloh — has come home after a hard time alone.
When Shiloh takes up with the charismatic young preacher at a cultish church, and the preacher becomes convinced that Isaac possesses a healing power, Lyle's lack of faith — traceable to the long-ago death of his and Peg's baby son — becomes a sticking point. It is, as Shiloh sees it, the reason why Isaac gets sick while in Lyle's care; in the rational world, however, Isaac is diabetic.
You see where the question of faith comes in, and what it's worth, especially when faith in God bumps up against one's faith in family, community and a quiet but fierce commitment to doing what seems right.
The world that Butler builds around Lyle — who, in his sort-of retirement, works in an apple orchard; tends to a colorful, suddenly sick old friend (aptly called Hoot); attends church where another old friend, now the pastor, offers solace and common sense; and wryly but truly honors his wife — is founded on a faith in the familiar. And when in this world devotion to his daughter and love of his grandson can't be reconciled, faith and the familiar both fail Lyle.
Butler is very good at getting the pattern of Lyle's days and the rhythm of his thoughts, the routines and rituals as subtly infused with personal history as with the changing of the seasons, the habits of a rural town, the quality of work, and the accommodations of a long, happy marriage. And so, when the crisis comes, the moment is as real as it is shocking, and it is small comfort to remember:
"The world is filled with a near endless array of mysteries, and an even more infinite amount of guesses, grifts, lies, spiels, and here and there, almost hidden, a very few sacred handfuls of answers."
Ellen Akins is a writer and a teacher of writing in Wisconsin; ellenakins.com.
By: Nickolas Butler.
Publisher: Ecco, 326 pages, $26.99.
Event: 7 p.m. March 18, Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.; Wordplay Festival, downtown Minneapolis, May 11-12.