Little Faith by Nickolas Butler

Reviewed by Harriet

This is Nickolas Butler’s third novel. He was widely praised for his first, Shotgun Lovesongs, which was published in 2014, and equally so for his second, The Hearts of Men. Is Little Faith going to be the third success in a row? I would say yes, without a doubt. ‘Powerful’, ‘tender’ ‘gripping’ and ‘warm-hearted’ are some of the adjectives that were applied to Butler’s earlier novels and will certainly be applied to this one too.

Little Faith is set in rural Wisconsin and takes place over the course of one year. At the centre of the novel is Lyle Hovde. He’s sixty-five and feeling his age a bit – he’s technically retired but in fact spends a good deal of his time helping an elderly neighbouring couple with their large commercial apple orchard. Lyle lives with his wife Peg, their adopted daughter Shiloh and her five-year-old son Isaac. Shiloh had been a troubled adolescent and had more or less broken off communication with her parents until she became pregnant and returned home. She has never revealed who Isaac’s father was.

Shiloh is at work all day so her parents have the charge of their grandson. Great love exists between the child and his grandparents. The opening scene in the novel shows Lyle and Isaac visiting the cemetery, where they play hide and seek and then clean the gravestone of Peter, Lyle and Peg’s son, who died as a toddler. Then they visit Lyle’s oldest friend Hoot, who is busy smoking himself to death in a house which is immaculate apart from the pervasive smell of cigarettes. Isaac eats ice cream while the two old men talk about Hoot’s health problems. A very commonplace day, you might think, but it stands as a perfect beginning because it is described so beautifully, and so vividly evokes the tenderness of the old man for the bright, happy, adoring small boy. Other days Lyle may take Isaac to the orchard, where some ancient, unnamed varieties grow among the commercial crops. He gives one to Isaac to taste:

Isaac . . . .chewed this apple, which somehow tasted of tart raspberries and cream, its inner meat at once crunchy and softly ephemeral, dissolving like a cloud of cotton candy. He could not believe his taste buds and kept biting into the apple for more.

An idyllic life, apparently, and one that Lyle, Peg and Isaac himself will be happy to continue in forever. But Shiloh has other ideas. She has got caught up with a fundamentalist church, and insists her parents start going there instead of attending their regular local church. It soon transpires that she has become involved with the charismatic preacher, Steven, who is encouraging her to move away from home and into a flat in the nearby town. Naturally this plan includes taking Isaac away from his grandparents, a devastating blow for the elderly couple and for Isaac as well. But Steven has convinced Shiloh that Lyle is a bad – indeed, a Satanic – influence on his grandson. Not only that, but he is certain that the five-year-old has healing powers which need to be nurtured. So begins a deeply unhappy period, in which Lyle and Peg rarely see Isaac, who appears to be increasingly unwell. But Stephen’s belief in the power of prayer overrides their desire to call in medical help.

Little Faith is so worth reading for a great many reasons. Old age does not, perhaps, seem like the most promising theme for a novel, but Butler portrays the old men here in such a way as to bring them vividly to life, and Lyle in particular is a gentle man, of great heart and great compassion.  A regular churchgoer all his life, he is honest not only with himself but also with his closest friends about his religious doubts and uncertainties, which began many years ago following the loss of his baby son. One thing he is certain of, though, is the untrustworthiness of Steven and the dangerous nature of his brand of hell-fire religion. In this he is fully vindicated by the end, though in potentially tragic circumstances.

The prose here is beautifully evocative – you can see that from the example above – and the passage in the book from spring through summer and autumn and into winter clearly parallels the states of mind of the main protagonists. Rural Wisconsin comes vividly to life, with its orchards, churches, small towns and scattered homesteads. I was somewhat reminded of both Marilynne Robinson and Elizabeth Strout. Like Robinson, Butler is unafraid of looking at the thoughts and feelings of an aging man and of tackling important issues of faith and doubt, and like Strout he is happy to explore the lives of ordinary people in rural America, living in areas you would drive through on the way to somewhere else, without giving them a second glance. But Little Faith is far from being just a second class imitation of either writer. It’s that rare thing, a book you want to read again the minute you finish it. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Nickolas Butler, Little Faith (Faber & Faber, 2019). 978-0571351107, 336pp., paperback.

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