Nickolas Butler’s ‘Little Faith’ poses big questions

In “Little Faith” (★★★ out of four, Ecco, 318 pp.) by Nickolas Butler, questions of faith are not just posed but prodded and probed.

Lyle Hovde lives in a small town in rural Wisconsin with his wife Peg, their daughter Shiloh and Shiloh’s young son Isaac. Shiloh returned to live with Lyle and Peg after she gave birth to Isaac following years of estrangement. Over the years, Lyle and Peg settle into having their daughter back at home and are doting grandparents to Isaac.

Lyle is not an overly religious man, and his attendance at St. Olaf’s Lutheran Church is more a social outing than a faith-driven one, spurred more by ritual than rite. His faith has been tested and severely shaken over the years, most notably when he and Peg lost their son Peter at about nine months old. In fact, Lyle’s faith has never really recovered, even after he and his wife adopted Shiloh three years later. He constantly questions his faith and the apparent faith of others.

Two events further test Lyle: His best friend Hoot is diagnosed with a terminal illness, and Shiloh decides to move her and her son from the family home to the nearby city of La Crosse to be closer to her church, and in particular, her charismatic pastor.

Pastor Steven leads the congregation at the non-denominational Coulee Lands Covenant out of a rundown movie theater. Coming off more con man than cleric to Lyle, Pastor Steven’s faith is unwavering. Soon Lyle finds out that the pastor believes unflinchingly that Isaac has the ability to heal the sick. And in almost cult-like fashion, his faith holds tremendous sway over Shiloh. 

Eventually, this radical belief in Lyle’s grandson’s healing abilities and his power over Lyle’s daughter puts Isaac in actual danger and leads Lyle to a crossroads.

Butler’s prose is very much a reflection of his characters, particularly Lyle — simple but not austere, forthright yet reverent. And he pragmatically poses questions of faith through his characters. Is faith solely belief in an ideology or denomination? Or is it just as much a belief in the secular stalwarts of family and community? In having Lyle continually question his faith, or lack thereof, the reader’s own views become paramount to the plot.

The story’s pace begins slow but steadily builds to a climactic ending. Readers may love or hate where and how Butler chooses to end the story, but there is no doubt their reaction will be informed by their own faith.

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