When you think about it, a story only needs two people and a secret. This is a good thing because it’s all a lot of novelists can handle. Creating and developing two believable characters and their relationship, within the context of the world in which they live, and riding herd on the effects of the secret, is hard. If the novel is set in a compelling period (say, Europe in 1938) the writer’s job is a little easier because there is a lot going on. But it’s still hard to do.
Nickolas Butler did not take the easy way out. He wrote a little gem with five primary characters, living in a Wisconsin town where pretty much nothing is going on. Though separated by life experiences and gender, they are cut from the same cultural cloth, their similarities far outweighing their differences. They have similar speech patterns and inclinations; they share a common past, and experience the modern world with the same emotional vocabulary. Writing a book with this narrow landscape is tricky. Butler does it beautifully.
Set in the mythical town of Little Wing, we meet four men – Henry, Kip, Ronny and Lee – and Beth, who is Henry’s wife. Henry is a rancher working hard to stay afloat; Kip got rich in Chicago and has returned home; Ronny is “Little Wing’s orphan,” a damaged former rodeo star everyone protects and wants to keep close; and, Lee is a genuine rock star who returns often enough to maintain varying degrees of friendship with each of them.
Tucked away in Henry and Beth’s marriage is the story’s not-very-unique secret. The book is driven by marriage – the one inhabited by Henry and Beth, and the impending three of Kip, Ronny and Lee. Those unions introduce a major actress of Julia Roberts’ stature, a stripper, and a lost soul of a Consultant (as Beth says, “Whatever that means”).
There are countless Little Wings around the world, with nearly identical men folk for whom “it is enough for them just to be in one another’s company [for] days … with maybe a dozen words shared between them. Were it not for the smiles permanently etched into their faces, you would think they were bored with each other.”
As in so many books I love, the setting is as much a character as the people. Most of the book takes place within Little Wing, as the town struggles to find its footing in today’s world. But, even when the action moves to New York City, Little Wing is still center stage in the hearts and minds of its inhabitants.
This is a small treasure of a book in which quite a lot goes on, quietly.
Note: there is much to be found online about the book and Butler’s relationship with Justin Vernon, lead singer of Bon Iver. They grew up together in Wisconsin, and the story of Vernon’s success inspired Butler’s imagination. If you want to avoid major spoilers, don’t read any of it until you finish the book.
Also: Wisconsin also produced Michael Perry, whose “Population: 485” is utterly brilliant. I would deem it a must read.