Tuesday, April 29, 2014

'Shotgun Lovesongs': Tribute to small town Wisconsin

Maybe it's been awhile since I've read a book that felt somehow familiar and introduced me to a new place all at once.  Maybe it's been awhile since I read a book by a male author who I felt really understood the complexities of human relationships and who was able to get inside the head of a female character and speak her truths with honesty and believability.  Maybe it's been awhile since a work of fiction captured my interest enough to read it in two days.  Whatever the case, Nickolas Butler's debut novel "Shotgun Lovesongs" felt like coming home, and it was exactly what I needed as I am in the process of selling my home here on the East Coast and moving to a small town in the Midwest.

My new town won't be quite as small as the fictional town of Little Wing, Wisconsin that becomes a character in Butler's book.  Little Wing reminds me a bit more of Foley, Minnesota where the people go to church together, have get togethers in the church multi-purpose room, where everyone could talk about the weather all day long and never tire of explaining the nuances of a winter snowstorm or a spring sunrise, where everyone knows everyone else, and where every once in awhile a small town boy  or girl makes it big in the world and becomes the topic of bar conversations and family gatherings.

Butler's story revolves around five childhood friends who all feel the gravitational pull (but experience it differently) of Little Wing.  Leland (Lee) is the small town boy who made it big by becoming a famous rockstar (rumors exist that Butler based this character on the lead singer of Bon Iver).  Kip also made it big but in a different way by becoming a big shot in the Chicago Financial District.  After making millions he returns to Little Wing to marry his city girlfriend, Felicia whose greatest desire is to have babies much to the chagrin of Kip who only wants to prove to himself and his friends that he actually belongs in Little Wing.  Ronney's success was short lived as a rodeo star after an accident that left him with a brain injury. He longs only to be treated as a peer instead of someone that everyone worries about and fusses over like a child.  The two most seemingly level-headed and salt of the earth characters in the book are the married couple Henry and Beth.  Henry is a kind, hardworking farmer who loves his family, works hard, worries about money, but never complains.  His devoted wife Beth loves him fiercely and although she sometimes longs for more feels complete as Henry's wife and the mother of their two children.

In the complicated way that friendships, love and marriage work, not all is wholesome in Little Wing.  Past secrets cause rifts, as does money.  Yes, hearts are broken and mended.  Marriages happen and fall apart.  Friends leave and return always with the nostalgic past in mind of four best buddies watching sunrises as teenagers with no idea of how their lives will turn out.  Each of them longs for the past in different ways and each of them reach for the future in different ways as well.

Even with the love that famous Lee holds onto from his brief fling with Beth before Beth and Henry were even together, the main conflicts aren't too heavy that they break the reader's heart.  All the conflicts presented could have happened or maybe already happened in all of our lives - we watch as our best friends marry people for the wrong reasons, or as a close friend longs for a baby when her husband isn't ready for that step in their relationship, or they go through bad business decisions or illnesses that we are helpless to fix.

At the epicenter of all of the conflicts is the never changing world of Little Wing with it's harsh winters (that almost claim the life of one of the friends), and unforgiving farm life.  It's winding back roads protect even the most famous people from artificial city life,  and there's no shortage of beautiful sunrises and sunsets, or hometown bars where everyone knows your backstory and everyone wonders about the jar of pickled eggs that seems to have been on the shelf behind the bar forever.

Butler's debut novel feels at once innocent and experienced, purple prosy in spots, and plainspeaking truth in other parts.  The familiarity of it made me think of the universal experiences of life - friendships, love, heartbreak, growing up, getting married, starting and raising families and trying to navigate the uncertainties of relationships. I do know that this book will make me sit up and take notice a bit more the next time I drive through a small midwestern town (which will be happening soon as my family drives the 11 hour journey to our new home about an hour outside of Chicago).  And maybe, just maybe, I'll be listening to the perfect love song and feeling nostalgic for home.

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