by Grant Cousineau
“…it was adults of course who introduced danger into the world, always adults.”
Nickolas Butler’s latest novel was inspired by the Kara Neumann case of Weston, WI, where a pair of Pentecostal parents refused medical treatment for their diabetic daughter and instead attempted to cure her through prayer. Kara died in 2008, and her parents were convicted of second-degree reckless homicide.
Little Faith explores this dangerous territory: the boundaries between faith and the limits of an agnostic reality. Where does God hand the baton off to man? What can faith heal, and how dangerous can misplaced faith become?
In a small Wisconsin town live Lyle and Peg Hovde, who you may remember from Beneath the Bonfire. As a refresher, in Butler’s short story “Apples”, Lyle loses his appliance store job after thirty solid years, and in his pit of misery, he’s offered an olive branch – or more appropriately, an apple – by Otis Haskell, who asks him to come work at Sourdough Orchard, helping to refill Lyle’s life with meaning.
Here in Little Faith, we learn a little more about the Hovdes, who in 1985 adopted a newborn girl on a whim after a slew of miscarriages and losing their infant son, Peter. And while their churchgoing community tries to reassure Lyle that Shiloh is both a blessing and a miracle, Lyle’s had difficulty finding his way back to God ever since Peter’s death.
Several decades later, his conviction is still damaged as he and Peg allow Shiloh and her five-year-old son, Isaac, to move back in with them. They only thing Lyle really has faith in anymore is his family. In the opening pages, he and Isaac go to wash Peter’s gravestone with Dawn dish soap until their hands turn pink and cold:
The world, he knew, was divided into two camps of people, as it so often is, or as it is 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.
Shiloh, now in her mid-twenties, has been a part of several fringe religious groups, the kinds that meet in “strip malls, failed restaurants, and other defunct places.” She insists on prayer before each meal and frequently quotes scripture. She also tells her parents that if they want to remain a part of Isaac’s life, they must join her every Sunday at the Coulee Lands Covenant, a congregation that holds service at an abandoned theater and believes all evil comes from Satan through nonbelievers. Not only that, but Pastor Steven convinces Shiloh that her son is a healer, that his mere touch can remedy people’s pain and even bring dead cardinals back to life.
Butler’s story is both challenging and written with immaculate care. He takes us to necessarily uncomfortable places while giving no clear prescriptions to Lyle or his readers. For all its miracles and tragedies, Little Faith is a story about life itself, wrapped in Butler’s trademark keen, compassionate language. He shows us the full beauty of small-town Wisconsin. The comfort of rural food and quiet pleasures. The dichotomy of people always yearning for a little more, and a little less.
And when it comes to his faith, Peg helps Lyle to realize he can’t have it both ways. “You’re afraid to let go, sweetheart,” she says. “Maybe life, maybe this whole universe, maybe the whole thing is more than just us.”
Because while Butler leads us patiently toward the story’s unavoidable yet powerful ending, the broader statement is something we’ve known all along: that faith is love, and love is faith, and we’d be fools to believe we have control over either.
Nickolas Butler is the Wisconsin-raised author of Little Faith, The Hearts of Men, and the internationally bestselling and prizewinning novel Shotgun Lovesongs, as well as the short story collection Beneath the Bonfire. He will be at the Brown County Central Library Saturday, April 27 at 2:00pm.