Things weren’t always easy for Lyle and Peg Hovde, but in retirement they welcomed the return of their wayward adoptive daughter Shiloh along with their five year old grandson, Isaac. Set in rural Wisconsin, LITTLE FAITH by Nicholas Butler bravely examines the fragility of faith and family.
Lyle Hovde attends the local Lutheran Church in his small town with his wife Peg where his friend Charlie is the pastor – a man who left Redford to see and conquer the world, only to return a softer version of himself. “There were no sharp corners left on Charlie—only rounded edges, like those smooth river stones a person plucks from the moving waters and keeps in their pocket.” Charlie’s faith seems hard won, and the thing that Lyle appreciates most about him is his vulnerability; he never preaches like he has all the answers, but rather as a flawed human being.
Lyle lost his faith the day they buried their infant son. “The heaviest thing in the world is the coffin that carries the weight of a little child, for no adult who has ever borne that burden will ever forget it.” After the death of their son, Lyle and Peg, in a miracle of sorts, adopted Shiloh, and the only person in the world Lyle loves perhaps more than Peg and Shiloh, is Isaac. He revels in playing hide and seek with his young grandson and bringing him to visit his old friend Hoot, who has recently been diagnosed with cancer.
Not long after her return, Shiloh starts attending a new church – one in an abandoned strip mall led by a charismatic and slightly shifty preacher. Shiloh falls in love with the wayward pastor, Steven, who soon declares to the congregation that young Isaac is a healer. Shiloh questions Lyle’s brand of faith and, perhaps abetted by Steven, a conflict brews between Lyle and his daughter. Both Peg and Lyle are uncomfortable with Steven, whose fire and brimstone rants from the pulpit feel disingenuous. Steven exercises a great deal of influence over Shiloh and she withdraws from Peg and Lyle – eventually prohibiting Lyle from seeing Isaac for fear that his lack of faith will negatively effect him.
The novel is divided into the four seasons, and as winter dawns, cold and unforgiving, Shiloh and Lyle’s relationship slips from his tenuous hold. The grandson he so embraced is torn from him and at the novel’s climax, it seems that it may be forever.
Butler masterfully examines the tenuous bonds of family against the backdrop of faith. The emotional landscape fittingly mirrors the physical as we progress through the seasons. LITTLE FAITH explores the significance of lifelong friendships, the fickleness of the seasons, and the capriciousness of romantic and familial love. In Butler’s world, as in real life, nothing comes without a price.
I recommend LITTLE FAITH for fans of Gilead by Marilyn Robinson and Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout. Listen to my interview with Nickolas Butler on January 28 at 7:00 pm on WTIP Radio, Grand Marais, Minnesota or on the web at http://www.wtip.org.