Little Faith: A Novel
Little Faith by Nickolas Butler is a perceptive novel that focuses on the joys of everyday life as well as the heartaches. The novel is inspired by the actual death of a child whose parents relied on faith rather than medicine.
Questions of faith, family, and friendship challenge the characters, who are flawed and likeable people you might meet in your local cafe. Lyle and Peg Hovde, an older couple living in rural Wisconsin, lost a child thirty years earlier. Their adopted daughter, Shiloh, rebelled as a teen, but has now returned home with her five-year-old son, Isaac. Lyle and Peg are delighted to have them. Lyle’s affection for his grandson is described, “Oh he loved the boy; and that was all there was to it.” Isaac is truly the light of Lyle’s life.
But Lyle’s comfortable life begins to unravel when his best friend, Hoot, gets a cancer diagnosis and Shiloh falls in love with Stephen, a radical pastor with strong cult-like influence. Lyle’s faith already struggles because he can’t believe a loving God would have allowed his infant son to die. “Because what good could come from taking a baby from its mother’s arms? What good could come from welcoming an infant into the universe only to steal it again a few short months later? Why? What kind of a god would do such a thing?”
Now Lyle has to question the authenticity of his daughter’s extreme religion as well as cope with his good friend’s health issues. Lyle’s doubt intensifies when Stephen claims Issac has the power to heal others and wants to treat his diabetes with prayer rather than medicine.
Although the characters in this novel face heartbreaking sadness, the details of their daily lives are heartwarming and often humorous. Butler writes a bit like a poet, describing the countryside and its people in detail. “It is the most obvious blessing and curse of a small town: your family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and clergy are forever, it seems, riding in your pocket, staring at you out of their window, intimate enough to intrinsically know when you are happy, sad, distracted, in love, or inching to disappear altogether.”
Butler does not leave readers without hope or with a sense that life is not worth living. Following the seasons of one year in Wisconsin, Butler gives the book a sense of place and a rhythm of pleasant routine. The emotional changes mirror the seasonal changes. The book begins with spring and ends with winter, when Lyle’s life seems darker and colder.
For readers who want conflict resolution, this book may disappoint. Like real life, the plot does not tie up nicely, and several questions remain unanswered. Most readers will keep thinking about the characters long after reading the book, and not every reader will have the same opinion about the decisions they make.
This book is a worthwhile read, but don’t expect it to erase your own doubts about faith.
If you do read it, you are in good company. It was the May book for Talk of Iowa Book Club and the 2021 All Iowa Reads book selection for the Iowa Center for the Book.