A heartland novel that evokes the possibility of everyday miracles.
The third novel by Wisconsin author Butler (Beneath the Bonfire, 2015, etc.) shows that he knows this terrain inside out, in terms of tone and theme as well as geography. Nothing much happens in this small town in western Wisconsin, not far from the river that serves as the border with Minnesota, which attracts some tourism in the summer but otherwise seems to exist outside of time. The seasons change, but any other changes are probably for the worse—local businesses can’t survive the competition of big-box stores, local kids move elsewhere when they grow up, local churches see their congregations dwindle. Sixty-five-year-old Lyle Hovde and his wife, Peg, have lived here all their lives; they were married in the same church where he was baptized and where he’s sure his funeral will be. His friends have been friends since boyhood; he had the same job at an appliance store where he fixed what they sold until the store closed. Then he retired, or semiretired, as he found a new routine as the only employee at an apple orchard, where the aging owners are less concerned with making money than with being good stewards of the Earth. The novel is like a favorite flannel shirt, relaxed and comfortable, well-crafted even as it deals with issues of life and death, faith and doubt that Lyle somehow takes in stride. He and Peg lost their only child when he was just a few months old, a tragedy which shook his faith even as he maintained his rituals. He and Peg subsequently adopted a baby daughter, Shiloh, through what might seem in retrospect like a miracle (it certainly didn’t seem to involve any of the complications and paperwork that adoptions typically involve). Shiloh was a rebellious child who left as soon as she could and has now returned home with her 5-year-old son, Isaac. Grandparenting gives Lyle another chance to experience what he missed with his own son, yet drama ensues when Shiloh falls for a charismatic evangelist who might be a cult leader (and he’s a stranger to these parts, so he can’t be much good). Though the plot builds toward a dramatic climax, it ends with more of a quiet epiphany.
The novelist loves this land and these characters, with their enduring values amid a way of life that seems to be dying.