Friday, March 21, 2014

Book Review: "Shotgun Lovesongs" by Nickolas Butler

Some books do a great job evoking a sense of place and a general mood, which draw you even further into them. Nickolas Butler's Shotgun Lovesongs is one such book. It's beautifully written—poetic, even—and tremendously compelling, and I read it between two short flights.

Little Wing, Wisconsin is a small rural town. Henry, Lee, Ronny, and Kip were best friends who grew up together. While Henry stayed in Little Wing to take over his father's dairy farm, Ronny found some success on the rodeo circuit before his drinking led to a brain injury following an arrest, Kip moved to Chicago to become a broker for the Mercantile Exchange, and Lee was the successful one, becoming a popular singer.

Ten years later, the friends are reunited for Kip's wedding, as he has returned to Little Wing to breathe life into the town's defunct mill. Lee agrees to sing a song at the wedding, and he finds himself caught between the magic of a new relationship with a successful actress and the desire to return home, where life is simpler. But the wedding also causes the start of some stresses among the friends, as they deal with the problems of their own lives and the envy, frustration, jealousy, and insecurity of small-town life when you've known each other forever.

The book shifts in perspective between the four friends as well as Henry's wife, Beth, who also grew up in Little Wing, and had a special connection with many of the friends. It moves back and forth through time, touching on the victories and defeats, hurts and happy times. While some characters are more engaging than others, Butler has imbued them with such life and complexity that they feel almost larger than life, and you find yourself wishing you had friends like these. While nothing out of the ordinary happens in the plot, it doesn't matter, because you become truly invested in their lives. Shotgun Lovesongs is a paean to life in small-town America, its virtues and its disadvantages. It's a book about trying to live your dreams and worrying about what to do if the dreams don't turn out the way you hoped. It's a book about how far the power of love can take you and how far the power of friendship can carry you. And Butler's use of language is so evocative and mesmerizing, but yet still simple and appropriate for the story. Here's an example:

"Strange, I thought to myself right then, how his life was like my own and yet not at all like it, though we came from the same small place on earth. And why? How had our paths diverged, why were they still even connected? Why was he then in my backyard, on my farm, the sound of almost two hundred cows, faintly in the background, mooing and lowing? How had he come back, this famous man, this person whose name everyone knew, whose voice was recognizable to millions in a way that made it impossible for him to be a stranger in so many places?"

I really loved this book and didn't want it to end. I think it would be a great movie as well, because I would love to see these characters and their stories play out in front of me again. I'd encourage you to take a trip to Little Wing, Wisconsin and spend some time with these people. Their lives might not wow you, but their stories will hook you.

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