Questions of Faith: Nickolas Butler’s third novel grapples with controversial subjects in a familiar landscape

Eric Rasmussen, photos by Andrea Paulseth

THE BUTLER DID IT (AGAIN). Eau Claire’s Nickolas Butler is poised to release a new novel, Little Faith.
THE BUTLER DID IT (AGAIN). Eau Claire’s Nickolas Butler is poised to release a new novel, Little Faith.

The advice to ignore certain topics at the dinner table still holds true today, although we often forget that custom. Politics and religion have the power to unite the like-minded and divide everyone else, and recent movements in our culture and government have left many shell-shocked at the prospect of talking about political parties or matters of faith. If the green bean casserole doesn’t induce stomach acid and indigestion, the passionate arguments with loved ones certainly will.

Nickolas Butler, one of the Chippewa Valley’s most successful authors, is releasing his newest title, Little Faith, on March 5. Given the bedraggled state of political and religious discourse, readers might be surprised to find the main character, Lyle Hovde, asking another character in the early pages of the book, “Tell me about your relationship with God. Please.” What follows is the story of Lyle and his wife, Peg, struggling with the ghost of their deceased infant son as they try to navigate a situation they never imagined. Their daughter, Shiloh, becomes entangled in a fringe church in La Crosse, and when Isaac, Lyle’s grandson, starts to suffer the effects of diabetes, Shiloh seeks faith healing instead of modern medicine. Lyle must then decide how to rectify his relationship with his daughter and his grandson with his own shaky faith in the almighty. It’s a powerful story filled with deep emotion, no matter your religious proclivities.

“All the best novels are about family,” explains Butler when asked about his tendency in this book and its predecessor (Hearts of Men, also published by Ecco) to focus on generational differences and the challenges they present. “I also tend to heroicize the old guy character, probably because of the relationship I had with my own grandpa.”

Unlike Butler’s previous novels, however, Little Faith follows a straightforward narrative. Readers stay close to 65-year-old Lyle while he grapples with a harsh Wisconsin landscape (this time amongst the coulees between Eau Claire and La Crosse), the waning of small-town life, and the aforementioned family struggles. As Butler transitions from debut to mid-career author, this new approach is a sign of his continually improving skills. “I’ve been doing this long enough now,” he said. “I have a little more added confidence.”

This confidence is most on display in Butler’s choice of subject matter. Parts of the novel are based on a true story. In 2008 a family from Weston, Wisconsin, chose faith healing to treat their daughter’s diabetes instead of modern medicine, and the girl’s eventual death sparked headlines and criminal charges. While this inspiration alone is enough to tempt controversy, Butler’s stark and honest discussion of faith and doubt indicates an author willing to challenge or ignore cultural and literary trends away from topics like religion. “I’m agnostic myself,” Butler explained before telling a story about how his church in Eau Claire put out a call for a teacher for Wednesday youth religious classes. Given the flexibility in his life of a full-time author, Nick followed his wife’s suggestion and volunteered. In doing so, he models an approach to religion embodied in Lyle: for most of us, faith means questioning, doubting, and searching for answers, probably for our entire lives.

If the early reviews are any indication, Little Faith is poised to surpass the success of Butler’s first two novels. Plus, he’ll be departing for an ambitious 32-city tour in March, which kicks off with a reading at Volume One’s The Local Store on March 4. But whether this book attracts film options and national recognition, or lives a quieter life in the hills south of town, Nick Butler has cemented himself as one of the big literary names of the Upper Midwest, and that’s something we all can believe in.

Little Faith book release and signing events with Nicholas Butler • Monday, March 4 • 2 readings: 5:30pm and 7:30pm • The Local Store at Volume One World Headquarters, 205 N. Dewey St., Eau Claire • FREE

Pre-order Little Faith here

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