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Review: Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

17934521Hank, Leland, Kip and Ronny were all born and raised in the same Wisconsin town — Little Wing — and are now coming into their own (or not) as husbands and fathers. One of them never left, still farming the family’s land that’s been tilled for generations. Others did leave, went farther afield to make good, with varying degrees of success; as a rock star, commodities trader, rodeo stud. And seamlessly woven into their patchwork is Beth, whose presence among them—both then and now—fuels the kind of passion one comes to expect of love songs and rivalries.

Now all four are home, in hopes of finding what could be real purchase in the world. The result is a shared memory only half-recreated, riddled with culture clashes between people who desperately wish to see themselves as the unified tribe they remember, but are confronted with how things have, in fact, changed.

There is conflict here between longtime buddies, between husbands and wives — told with writing that is, frankly, gut-wrenching, and even heartbreaking. But there is also hope, healing, and at times, even heroism. It is strong, American stuff, not at all afraid of showing that we can be good, too — not just fallible and compromising. Shotgun Lovesongs is a remarkable and uncompromising saga that explores the age-old question of whether or not you can ever truly come home again — and the kind of steely faith and love returning requires.

When I moved to the country, I quickly learned through discussion with my neighbours that there are different levels of “local”. There’s those who are local because they bought a house in the area … in the last fifteen or twenty years. Then there’s local as in those who have lived there all their lives and who have generations in the local cemetery. If you move away, you straddle that fine line – you may still be local, but are you local enough?

Shotgun Lovesongs brought this discussion back to mind. In Butler’s book, Leland – or Lee, as his friends call him – has become a famous musician, but he still comes back to his hometown and his core group of four high school friends.  They’ve all moved on in some way with their lives – some moving to the city to make their fortune, while the girl they all secretly loved in high school marries another and settles down on the farm . They soon realize that memories are sometimes not enough to keep a friendship going, and the resulting discussions can be heartbreaking and life changing. Everyone has secrets and regrets; it is how we accept these marks in our past that will determine how we can live in the future.

Henry, Lee, Ronny, Kip and Beth become as familiar to us as our own neighbours through the use of a mixed past and present narrative, and you begin to understand each individual personality intimately. All of the men have watched their lives turn out differently than expected, and even Beth, the girl they all secretly crushed on in high school, wonders ‘what if’ when she looks back on her life. Lee is now the famous singer, but he retreats to his simple life in Little Wing whenever he needs to reconnect with himself and his friends. It’s through Lee that we begin to see how prominent the author’s love of Wisconsin will become to the story, although each character adds an other layer to the descriptions. Eventually, the town of Little Wing is as much a character as the others. To me, however, Henry and Beth are the heart and soul of the narrative, and it is through their eyes that we truly see each of the others in the group, and just how much of their life is truth versus illusion.

Baker has a knack for a lyrical turn of phrase; his ability to take simple things and to make them explode off the page kept me riveted:

“The fiddle players rosined their bows, and the piano player lightly touched the keys, and the bass player made his big fat string talk in a deep, low voice, and then they exploded – and the music they played was like a giant bucket of water poured over a great tree, fully leaved, the notes dividing and dispersing themselves down, gradually growing smaller and smaller, joyously running, bouncing, flowing down, down, down from leaf to leaf as if racing one another. A one-child family suddenly multiplied a thousand, a million times over, each rivulet, each bead, each tear, a drop of sunlight and glee.”

This isn’t a flashy, shiny novel that jumps out at you. Rather, it’s as slow-moving as the maple syrup in the spring, but just as sweet to savour. This is wonderfully reflective novel that illustrates a story of love, friendship, heartbreak and home. It will remind you of home, and make you that little bit nostalgic for what you used to find there.

Shotgun Lovesongs is published by Thomas Dunne Books, a division of St. Martin’s Press, and is distributed via Raincoast Books. An ARC was provided in exchange for an honest review. It is available for purchase from your favourite bookstore. ISBN:  9781250039811.

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