Lyrical and engaging, Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler is really a story about the pull of a small town. Henry, Lee, Ronny, and Kip (and a small host of secondary characters) grew up together in Little Wing, Wisconsin. When we meet them, they are all adults and all living extremely different lives – Henry farms the land his father once owned, Ronny is dealing with the fallout of an alcohol-induced head injury after a few years of being a rodeo star, Kip has returned to Little Wing after making it big in the financial world of Chicago, and Lee travels the world as a famous musician under the pseudonym Corvus. Despite the different paths that they have taken, the men find themselves consistently pulled back to one another, unable to break the bonds that were created by growing up in that tiny farming town. At their center is Henry’s wife Beth, surrounded by secrets that threaten to pull the friends’ apart.
This novel is driven as much by its setting as it is by its characters. The story is told through the alternating voices of the five main characters (Henry, Ronny, Kip, Lee, and Beth), sometimes dipping into the past, and sometimes detailing current events. While each character is dealing with their own set of issues and complications, everything centers back around their relationship to Little Wing – either their desire to get out of the tiny town, or their drive to make their way back home. Butler is a champion of descriptive writing, and it’s easy to be pulled in to the world he creates. After reading the book I feel like I’ve really been to Little Wing, when in actuality I could barely point Wisconsin out on a map. I just have the clearest pictures of the farm houses, silos, old taverns, and closed down storefronts. One of the most engaging aspects of this novel for me was that you can tell Butler just gets small towns. While Nova Scotia is a very different place than the American mid-west, and I grew up around more fisherman than farmers, there were many times while reading this novel that I was nodding my head emphatically in agreement. Whether you grew up in a small town feeling trapped and wanting to get out, or you had to leave for opportunity’s sake and are desperately longing to come back, Butler understands you and he has written this book for you.
The reason that I actually picked this book up in the first place is because of it’s connection to one of my favourite bands. Butler grew up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and went to highschool with Bon Iver’s frontman Justin Vernon. While he says he hasn’t spoken to Vernon in 20 plus years, the character of Leland is loosely based on him. Vernon composed Bon Iver’s first album For Emma, Forever Ago, by himself, isolated in a cabin in the woods after a particularly bad breakup. Similarly, the fictional Leland recorded his first album in a souped-up chicken coop and was also driven by heartbreak. Butler was mainly inspired by Vernon’s choice to remain in Eau Claire after he became famous, and pour a lot of himself and his own resources back into the small city. Throughout the novel, Leland is driven by his desire to get back to Little Wing and the friends he grew up with.
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