Living in the suburbs on the edges of a major Canadian city my whole life, I have a tendency to romanticize small-town living a little bit. With a lot of family living in small-town Alberta, I only get glimpses of what it’s like when I visit, but I like to believe in the possibilities of community in such areas. Is it realistic? Maybe not. But I like to daydream, you see. So sometimes I just want to read or watch something that takes me out of the cities I know and into a specific time and place with a history that is so deeply connected to the people who make it what it is. And Shotgun Lovesongs is a pretty good example of that, as a more thoughtful, character-driven novel.
Our story takes us to a small town called Little Wing, Wisconsin, and centers on a group of 4 male friends who were born and raised in the town, along with a woman named Beth who was also born and raised there, and is now married to one of the 4 men, Henry. A quick rundown on the characters:
Henry – Lives with his wife and children in Little Wing, continuing to work the farmland that has been in his family for generations.
Ronny – Used to be a rodeo star, but after an accident left him with some brain damage, people see him as slow and have begun treating him differently.
Lee – Became a successful touring musician, who comes and goes from the town when he is not on tour, reconnecting with his old friends and quiet life.
Kip – Was never as close to the rest of the boys as a kid, and left to make his fortune in the big city before returning to the town to try and renovate an old, rundown mill that will hopefully breathe new life into his old town.
As you can see, the men’s lives have all gone off in different directions, but they all inevitably converge from time to time in their hometown. The inciting event this time is the marriage of one of the friends, Kip, which begins the first in a chain of relationship rifts and increasing divides that may have already begun without the men ever really noticing before now.
Told in shifting perspectives between the four lifelong friends (Henry, Lee, Kip, and Ronny) and Beth, we see flashbacks of how things were, important moments where things started to change, and the reality of their lives now. Although this book comes across largely as a character study, there is of course a plot pushing forward that examines the cracks in the characters’ relationships and the different ways that they all seek to repair them in some form.
Sitting with this book for a few days after reading it before writing this review, I can honestly say that it has warmed up for me in my mind. Not that it wasn’t already sitting pretty decently in my brain, but having a little more time to think over exactly what I was feeling made it feel all the richer. Because first and foremost, I love the vibe of this book: how personal, intimate, and contemplative it is about who we are, how we define ourselves, and how we define our relationships. There is certainly something to be said for the fact that I would likely enjoy a whole book about some of the main characters to really dig into. In particular, I would love to get more from Ronny’s perspective and how people treat him since his accident. It reminds me a bit of the experiences of Brady Jandreau portrayed in the film The Rider, and I think could be a great overall character study. But alas! There is only so much time in a novel with so many point-of-view characters, so inevitably certain ones will get more time than others depending on where the plot is.
And that does bring me to something that almost lost me in the middle: Beth as a POV character yet something was missing once a conflict that really centered on her became the focal point of the novel. It’s like the outcomes and journey of this particular rift involving her was actually occurring around her. To put it another way, it was all a very specific masculine way of looking at things, you know? She’s there but she’s not, this is about the men after all! In fact, none of the women in this story besides Beth are given much depth beyond some standard female character stereotypes. Truly I think it boils down to me personally having a hard time resonating with some of the conflict and how it was overcome. But then again, it is also interesting and illuminating to see the different ways in which people heal, or at least begin the paths to repair when things become broken in their lives. No two paths will look exactly the same, nor will the choices from one person to the other ever exactly align.
Even though this novel certainly has a story to tell in terms of a meandering plot that takes us back and forth through time, it really is about the setting and characters in the end. It manages to create a pretty clear world in Little Wing, but I did sometimes wish for a little filling out of the people and things mentioned in passing. Especially when certain characters kept being brought up, but just as names and figures without us knowing who they are. That’s what made this book really stick to me: the feeling of it, and the whole town and all its players are a part of that! I feel like Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame looking down upon all the people, feeling so familiar even from the outside, but sometimes I need a little help knowing who and what the importance of things are from that vantage point.
In the end, after reading I am left feeling like this novel is an acknowledgement that though we may never be able to fully return to the exact place and feeling from the past that we year for, we grow and change and find new hopes and ways of living that have been shaped by all that has come before, both the good and the bad. And I’m good with feeling like that at this moment.