Thursday, March 14, 2019

Little Faith by Nickolas Butler

Oh, readers, you are in for quite a ride. If you’ve yearned for a fine novel like those by Kent Haruf and David Rhodes, Nickolas Butler’s  Little Faith is the novel that you who adored Plainsong, All Souls at Night, and Driftless will love. Opening with a scene in a small cemetery where 65-year-old Lyle is entertaining his beloved five-year-old grandson Isaac while his wife Peg and daughter Shiloh shop in Minneapolis, the novel quickly delivers the reader to a quiet way of living. Lyle opines, “The world, he knew, was divided into two camps of people, as it so often is, or as it so oftentimes and simply reduced to being, those who find cemeteries places of sadness and eeriness, and those, like him, who felt here a deep and abiding unity and evenness, as if the volume in his life were suddenly dimmed down, the way he imagined it might be, floating in outer space, looking out over everything – the immensity of it all. For Lyle, this was a place to be close to people long gone. A free and quiet place off to the side of things. A place to touch not just his memories, but his future.” Lyle and Peg’s first child, son Peter, who died when he was an infant is buried in this cemetery as are the others Lyle fondly remembers from a lifetime spent in the area.

Daughter Shiloh grew up in the Lutheran Church in their town, but “her faith had grown in ferocity since her childhood. She no longer drank even so much as a light beer, a margarita, or a Bartles & James, and insisted on prayers before every meal. She wore more conservative clothing, quoted scripture frequently, and challenged Lyle and Peg with questions of their own faith.

On those Sundays, since she and Isaac had moved back home, she politely attended church with her parents, only to visit another church later, this one in La Crosse, in an old movie theater. And she would spend her entire afternoon and early evening there, in fellowship, she would explain. Lyle understood churchly fellowship, but only in the context of two or three mugs of wan coffee and polite chitchat, after which, wasn’t it time to head home and mow the lawn? Or rake some leaves? Perhaps clean the gutters or pull weeds?

The truth was, Lyle did not believe in God – or at least, wasn’t sure he did. It began after Peter passed away. As if the will to believe, the energy to believe had been sapped from him.”

While Lyle had stopped believing, he’d never stopped attending church and he suspected that there were millions of others like him who attended “as much out of routine or obligation as out of any real fervor or belief.” Peg wouldn’t let him go; “she believed for him, and in him, too, somehow.”

Since his retirement, Lyle had worked part-time in an orchard and he cherished days spent there and loved it when Isaac accompanied him and they shared apple cider and lunch together amid the apple trees. “Oh, he loved the boy; and that was all there was to it.” So when Shiloh asks Lyle and Peg to attend her church, they go and keep going despite Lyle’s dislike of the rock music and of Steven, the know-it-all young man wearing “new blue jeans made to look old,” who is the pastor of the church.

Soon Shiloh and Isaac move to be near her new job, church, and Steven who becomes her fiancĂ©. While Lyle feels that he’s always on eggshells around the “new” Shiloh, he’s willing to give up a lot to be near Isaac. But all that is tested when Isaac becomes ill and Shiloh and Steven insist that their faith will heal him. What happens tests all of them and the beauty of the way Nick Butler tells the tale, is that every reader will see what’s happening through their own beliefs.

Butler brilliantly divides the books by the seasons beginning and ending with spring and thus embeds the reader in the cycle of life that the book shares. He also uses nature, particularly the apple orchard to show that for Lyle the land and the orchard are Eden thus it’s extraordinarily difficult for him to see why anyone would leave that paradise for false idols.

This is a novel for everyone and it’s one that’s almost impossible for this reader to review because I want to share every word of it with you so that you, too, will feel the beauty and comfort of it washing over you. That Nick Butler isn’t yet forty proves the words of Acts – “your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” Nick Butler provides the reader with an exquisite world complete with a dreaming older man who shows us the way. I’ve loved all Butler’s novels, but with this one, he’s created holy ground.

Summing it Up: Little Faith is the novel readers have been wishing for since Kent Haruf’s All Souls at Night. It’s an engaging, thought-provoking tale of a grandparent’s love for his grandson and for the life he’s blessed to live. It’s a novel of gratitude for the natural world and of the threats to the things we hold sacred. Give yourself a gift, read Little Faith. It’s an epiphany wrought on paper.

Rating: 5 stars   

Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book Club

Publication date: March 5, 2019

What Others are Saying:

Publishers Weekly: “This is storytelling at its finest.”

Wall Street Journal: “[A] tender and perceptive novel... An open-minded inquiry into the nature of religious belief, in both its zealous and low-key forms... “Little Faith” is [Butler’s] best so far, unafraid of sentiment yet free of the kitsch.”

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The River by Peter Heller

The prologue of this magnificent adventure story shows the reader that the coming tale will be more than a travelogue of two college kids on a canoe trip. Wynn and Jack have been smelling smoke for two days and they know that they’re approaching a forest fire – “who knew how far off or how big, but bigger than any they could imagine.” The prologue teases the reader with what’s to come via Wynn and Jack’s encounter with “two men and a plastic fifth of Ancient Age bourbon drunk on a summer morning.” In those first few pages, they also glimpse a couple they hear arguing. Through these brief foretastes, Peter Heller, the author of the spectacular Dog Stars and The Painter, offers glimpses of the troubles to come before he helps us know and care for protagonists Jack and Wynn. 

Heller tells us that Jack, who grew up on a Colorado ranch, is grieving the death of his mother then shares how that grief feels. “When Jack got accepted at Dartmouth, his Dad said, ‘Your mother would be over the moon.’ Over the moon. She was over the moon. It was almost exactly how he had been thinking of her these past years. When he walked halfway to the horse barn on a cold night and stood in the frozen yard and watched the moon climb over Sheep Mountain, he sometimes whispered, ‘Hi, Mom.’ He wasn’t quite sure why, it just seemed that if she were to be anywhere it would be there. Maybe it was because his favorite book when he was very little was Goodnight Moon. She had read it to him over and over, and after she drowned he kept the battered copy on the little shelf above the bed and sometimes fingered the worn corners and flipped through it before he slept. And it was books he took solace in. When he wasn’t out on the ranch, or riding the lease, or fishing.”

At Dartmouth, he met Wynn and “He and Wynn had that in common, a literary way of looking at the world. Or at least a love of books, poetry or fiction or expedition accounts.” The two had met on a freshman orientation trip backpacking through the White Mountains. “Jack was startled. He’d never had conversations like this with another kid, and he’d never imagined anyone else his age would love to read as much as he did – especially a guy who seemed to be able to more than handle himself in the woods. They were best friends from that first day, and whatever else they were doing, they never went very long without trading books.”

As the two friends row their way through a Canadian wilderness, Heller presents us with unique, yet earthbound views of the trip. “His fly hit the water and was met with a small splash and tug. A hard tug, and Wynn’s spirit leapt and the rod tip doubled and quivered and he felt the trembling through his hand and arm and, it seemed, straight to his heart, where it surged a strong dose of joy into his bloodstream.”. . . “It was not a long fight and not a huge fish, but it was a fourteen-inch brown—who knew how they had come to live way up here – big enough, the first like him they’d seen, and with a gratitude and quiet joy he did not know he still had, he got the slapping fish up on the rocks and thanked him simply and thwacked him on a smooth stone and the golden trout went still. Phew. Lunch. A few more like that and they’d be set for the day.”

Despite their need to return to civilization quickly, Jack and Wynn turn around to warn the men and the couple about the impending fire and they find Mia, the woman they’d heard previously. She’d been left to die by her husband who now knew that they knew what he’d done so they were all targets with more than the fire to fear. Thus the novel turns from a simple adventure tale to a harrowing page-turner with the reader wondering if anyone will survive.

As they take turns sitting watch at night, each ponders their lives. Jack sits observing Wynn and thinks, “Wynn was an angel in a way. He slept usually as soon as his head hit the pillow or rolled up jacket, he slept easily and hard because, Jack figured, his conscience was clear and he had faith in the essential goodness of the earth and so felt cradled by it.
Imagine. That’s what Jack thought. Imagine feeling that way. Like God had you in the palm of his hand or whatever.”. . . “It sort of awed Jack. Sometimes, usually, it made him crazy.”

The River is part thriller, part adventure tale, and part elegy. The sum of those parts is an extraordinary view of what’s important in life. It’s simply spectacular.

Summing it Up: The River’s exquisite sentences celebrate nature and epitomize the best aspects of true friendship. It’s a thriller. It’s an outdoor lover's dream of an adventure tale. It’s quite simply one great novel. 

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book Club
Publication date: March 5, 2019
What Others are Saying:
“Using an artist’s eye to describe Jack and Wynn’s wilderness world, Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist Heller has transformed his own outdoor experiences into a heart-pounding adventure that’s hard to put down.” –Library Journal (Starred Review)