By Jess Witkins —
Internationally bestselling author Nickolas Butler is already at work on the next book, his fifth, amid caravanning two kids to swim tournaments around the state. Born in Pennsylvania and raised in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, he continues to call Wisconsin home and sets his novels here in the Midwest. Now, he prepares for a book tour, launching his latest novel, “Little Faith,” published in March of this year.
Portraying three generations of a family in the course of one year, “Little Faith” tackles the subjects that test us the most: love, illness, loss and even religion itself. The idea for “Little Faith” was inspired by the 2008 case of Kara Neumann, an 11-year-old girl who died of complications stemming from her diabetes while her parents prayed over her, rather than seek medical help.
“I began researching the history of prayer-healing in America, and frankly, lost a lot of sleep, delving into case after case of what I consider to be reckless child abuse,” says Butler. “But good fiction isn’t based on judgement, it springs out of empathy. So part of the project of the book was to better understand how a parent could make such a decision.”
The novel is set in the fictional town of Redford, Wisconsin, a rural area near La Crosse. All living under the same roof, grandparents Lyle and Peg struggle with their daughter’s decision to join an extremist church where everyone believes their 5-year-old grandson is a healer.
“Another project of the book,” Butler says, “was to create a relationship between a grandfather and his grandchild; that special relationship between the old and the young. And then to set the dramatic action of the book in the generation between the grandfather and the grandson. I.e., what would you do as a grandparent to protect your grandchild from your own child? One fiction writing cliché that you hear bandied about is, ‘What are the stakes of this story?’ In the case of ‘Little Faith,’ I knew the stakes were profound. They were life and death.”
The book beautifully captures what it’s like to be vulnerable both in its storyline and its characters. There are truths we encounter, like not every child is safe with their parent(s), we don’t get to choose how or when we die, and we don’t always communicate or adjust to change well. At one point, Lyle, the grandfather, lies awake in bed, worrying, “How do you disagree with someone you love so fiercely?”
For Butler, these are the moments that matter and make for great fiction.
“I think such events are touchstones in our lives, they are the moments that shape us. The thing I like about Lyle as a protagonist is that he sees the end of his life coming. It might not be in a year, or five years, but he’s closer to the end than the beginning, and he’s really struggling to reconcile his own faith. Everything in his life is very close, very immediate. He’s an observant character without being judgmental, and I like that.”
Butler worked with several clergy members as additional research for the book, though he never worried about tackling a topic like religion.
“I’m trying to figure out my own life, my own feelings. I’m trying to understand other people; I’m trying to be more empathetic, less judgmental. I don’t worry too much about challenging my readers, per se, or what they’ll think after they finish my books. In my experience, the more I focus on my craft, and my own interests, the truer the work is and the healthier my attitude is towards everything.”
Butler will be visiting La Crosse Public Library as part of National Library Week, reading from “Little Faith” and talking about writing on Saturday, April 13, at 1 p.m. National Library Week (April 7-13) is sponsored by the American Library Association and focuses on the variety of ways libraries contribute to the social, cultural and economic health of their communities. The La Crosse Public Library will showcase several programs throughout the week, including film screenings and performances in addition to Butler’s visit. The week will also highlight the library’s pop-up van appearing in different locations throughout the community.
For more information about National Library Week, and to see scheduled events, visit www.lacrosselibrary.org.
Excerpt from “Little Faith”
By Nickolas Butler
How the boy could ask questions—exhaustively, relentlessly, so sincerely—for hours at a time. Church filled Isaac’s little head with glorious puzzles and promises, and afterward, it was often left to Lyle to delicately untangle the knots, always careful not to cut a line that Shiloh had carefully and skillfully secured around herself and Isaac. The world is filled with a near endless array of mysteries, and an even more infinite amount of guesses, grifts, lies, spiels, and here and there, almost hidden, a very few sacred handful of answers.
Increasingly, Lyle found that he was most at home in the quiet, near those he loved, not trying to solve any problems, but, rather, just learning how to live more lightly, love more intensely, eat better, and, before his eyes closed at night, to read through the shelves and shelves of books that sadly, he knew, he would likely never live long enough to open, those white-winged birds perched on his chest in the pale light of his bedside lamp, waiting for their thin pages to be flicked lightly by a wet fingertip, and turned, giving over their stories and poems and mythologies. Increasingly, and in direct contrast to his lust for books, Lyle found that he loved nothing more than a good catnap, stealing sleep the way a child steals a quarter off the counter—a small, insignificant, but thrilling theft.