With beautiful prose and interesting characters, this book earns your affection almost immediately. If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you will probably feel like you “recognize” Little Wing, the book’s fictional town close to Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The story is centered on six friends in their early thirties – Henry and Beth Brown, Leland (Lee) Sutton, Ronny Taylor, and Kip and Felicia Cunningham, all of whom are anchored to Little Wing by a deep sense of place.
Lee is supposedly based in part on Justin Vernon, lead singer of the band Bon Iver, who came originally from Eau Claire where the author grew up. Lee, a successful folk-rock musician, has his biggest fans among his hometown friends, and it is in his hometown where he also finds his inspiration, as revealed by these poetic passages:
“And in the fields as it is in the forests: the springtime prairie fires and tire fires and shit-spreaders slowly spraying the fields with rich, rich manure. Sandhill cranes and whooping cranes in the sky big as B-52s and all the other myriad birds come back home like returned mail, making the night sky loud as any good homecoming party. And then summer comes, the green coming in such profusions that you think maybe winter never even happened at all, never will come again. . . .”
. . .
“Late-night softball games at rural diamonds behind crossroads taverns where the sodium-nitrate lights bring in billions of bugs and moths … and in the backyards clothes pinned to lines snap in the cooling-down breezes that signal autumn’s arrival, that elegant season, that season of scarves and jackets, that season of harvest and open night windows and the best season for sleep.”
When Lee was answering questions about how to learn to sing, he’d say:
“Sing like you’ve got no audience, sing like you don’t know what a critic is, sing about your hometown, sing about your prom, sing about deer, sing about the seasons, sing about your mother, sing about chainsaws, sing about the thaw, sing about the rivers, sing about forests, sing about the prairies. But whatever you do, start singing early in the morning, if only just to keep warm. And if you happen to live in a warm beautiful place … Move to Wisconsin. Buy a woodstove, and spend a week splitting wood. It worked for me.”
Around this hub of Little Wing, and the old mill at the center of town which serves as its focus, the characters spin their interconnected stories in alternate chapters. Henry and Beth are the paragon of a married couple to which the others aspire, yet they have their own struggles. Lee is their tragic muse, whose life seems so glamorous, but he can’t always get what he wants. Ronny is the damaged alcoholic they all take care of, and Kip and Felicia represent the Outside – the world beyond Little Wing.
The characters argue with one another, but in the end, they are each other’s families, each other’s homes. As the author alerts us in his epigraph from Moby Dick, the feelings they have for each other are deeply rooted: “But, heave ahead, boy, I’d rather be killed by you than kept alive by any other man.”
I loved this book up until the end, when it just… ended…. But I guess that’s part of why I keep thinking about the story.
Evaluation: Excellent writing with a story that merits a broader audience.
Published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, a division of Macmillan Books, 2014
Note: Suggested music to accompany your reading: