This book is a love letter to the Midwest and the people that live here.
Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler is a book that I will read again and again. Through the perspectives of four friends who grew up in Little Wing, WI, we learn what it’s like to live – and love – in a small town, and how the experience follows you to adulthood and then back home again.
Ronny’s life as a bullrider leaves him alone and a little off-kilter. Kip moved to Chicago, made his money, and came back to town a little too big for his briches. Lee became an international rock star, but comes home to recoup on a slowly moving tractor in his fields. And Henry stayed. He stayed, and married – or is it married and then stayed? – his high school sweetheart, Beth. Throughout the story, all four men – and the women they love – are forced to reflect on and make peace with their own decisions, as well as learn how to be friends again now that they are adults.
“Sometimes you’d even hear Kip’s voice… narrating fluctuations in numbers that dictated whether or not we could afford orthodontia for our children, winter vacations, or new boots, telling us things we didn’t exactly understand and yet already knew. Our own futures were sown into those reports of milk and corn prices, wheat and soy.” – p. 3
“His eyes were scared in a way I had only seen in horses. We wiped his forehead and did our best to hold him down to the earth.” – p. 7
“All afternoon we rode together over the links, taking our swings and encouraging each other, and he asked me the best questions: about Beth and the kids, my farm and tractors.” – p. 25
“… as I watched their approach I wondering whether the slow pace of a wedding march was for the benefit of the bride on her most beautiful day, or for the aging father preparing to give her away.” – p. 38
“Here, I can hear things, the world throbs differently, silence thrums like a chord strummed eons ago, music in the aspen trees and in the firs and burr oaks and even in the fields of drying corn.” – p. 48
“For all of our Middlewester niceness, I realized that we, that I, could be every bit as cold as our longest season.” – p. 83
“I wanted everything to be perfect… everything lined up just right. Our life arranged like a vase of flowers. Beautiful and controlled.” – p. 196
“You pour everything into a child, all your love, all your attention, all your hopes, all the promises of those kinfolk who preceded you, and you just don’t know.” p. 205
“What he could have said is, I know you better than you know yourself. And this, I think, is what marriage is all about.” – p. 276
What made this a good story? I loved that each section was told by a different person – we really got to know each character and what motivates them, even if we don’t always like what they say or do as they are narrating. I love that a fully-rendered plot plays out on a backdrop of descriptions about the Midwest: about the weather, the people, the culture. Butler knows his subject matter and isn’t afriad to say hard truths about the characters of the region.
What could have made it a better story? There are a few moments where the rich descriptions overtake the plot and you get a little lost. Where run-ons keep you from making progress in the story. It’s an interesting blend of modern writing and traditional plot trajectories, and they don’t always jive perfectly, but the moments where it doesn’t work are far fewer than the ones where it does – I still say it’s worth a read.
Have you read Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler? Or any of his other work? Let me know what you think! I’d also love other suggestions for books that fall in a similar vein.
P.S. If you liked this, you’d probably enjoy Michael Perry’s Population 485.