“Bird’s Eye View” by Elinor Florence vs “Shotgun Lovesongs” by Nickolas Butler
Judge Dave Irwin
The final pairing in the Buff Orpington this year features a battle between the traditional and the (slightly) avant garde. “Bird’s Eye View” is the more traditional work, a straight-forward story that evolves outward from the role of Canadian women in World War II. “Shotgun Lovesongs” is more quirky in its storytelling and smaller in its scope, using sequential first-person narrative by its characters to move the story along, even while continually shifting the perspective of that story.
“Bird’s Eye View” blossoms from the microcosm of one girl’s peaceful life in a small Saskatchewan prairie town until it encompass the chaos of war and a Europe full of death and devastation. Leaving her job at the local newspaper, Rose volunteers to join the British Royal Air Force. Her knowledge of photography lands her an elite intelligence analyst position, reviewing reconnaissance photos.
From there, the war proceeds apace along historical lines to the inevitable defeat of the Nazis, aided by Rose dutifully doing her part. Her distance from the actual fighting itself is a metaphor for Canada’s role as an Ally. Placid Canada and its abundant farms eagerly and willingly contributed their sons and daughters to the fight, but faced no direct threat at home, in sharp contrast to the fury of life in wartime England, with bombs raining down daily. Along the way, Rose falls in and out of love, tries to understand this big ol’ crazy world, and eventually (spoiler alert!), the war won, she goes home and marries the boy next door, much as she likely would have had a global conflagration not sidetracked things.
I enjoyed the memoir-ishly detailed descriptions of WWII, the plain-spoken narrative, and the character of Rose. I’m a fan of WWII history, especially the European air war, as my father was a B-24 crewman. Florence gives a good sense of the drudgery and excitement of the air war, including the guilty relief of the ground crews and support infrastructure for not being the ones being shot at.
The problem with “Bird’s Eye View” is that in trying to embrace the immensity of a war in which Rose is only one more pawn, it conflates to a Canadian approximation of magical realism. Plot points align far too smoothly and neatly, people end up in exactly the right place at the right time for otherwise inexplicable things to happen. Had there been a little more chaos in the course of the characters, more genuine surprises or legitimate plot twists, “Bird’s Eye View” might have felt more authentic and less manipulated by the author’s hand.
“Shotgun Lovesongs” is also about a small prairie town: Little Wing, Wisconsin. It starts there and rarely leaves – even when visiting New York or Chicago, Little Wing looms large. The story focuses on five school chums, four guys and one girl, some of whom leave to make their fortunes and some who will never leave.
The most successful is Lee, a world famous pop star who at the end of the tour always finds his way back home to Little Wing (itself the name of a Jimi Hendrix song). This character is seemingly influenced by the true story of Justin Vernon, who, after failing repeatedly in the music business, retreated to a Wisconsin cabin, reinvented himself as Bon Iver (“good winter”) and single-handedly created his massive 2008 hit album, “For Emma, Forever Ago.” There are also echoes of John “Cougar” Mellencamp and his heartland paeans, as Lee has his choice of earthly delights, but keeps returning home physically and in his songs and his friends struggle to find the real Lee beneath the swag and bling of stardom.
There is also Ronny, a good-hearted, but damaged rodeo cowboy; Kip, spiritually adrift despite an instinct for making money; Hank, a farmer, father and all-around decent guy; plus his wife, Beth. Each sequentially shoulders the narrative duties in short, chapter-length chunks.
I enjoyed the freshness of “Shotgun Lovesongs,” and its strong sense of people living real lives in a real place, despite being fiction. The book is like a novel of characters from Bruce Springsteen songs. But a key character in “Shotgun Lovesongs” is Little Wing itself, and unfortunately, the characters’ devotion to this bit of geography is never clearly articulated beyond a generalized nostalgic wistfulness for a simple life of honest work and meaningful relationships.
Also a technical note: Butler’s prose often takes poetic flight, especially during interior monologues, which reduces the uniqueness of the speakers and makes them seem artificial, as when Ronny uses the word “gleaned,” which should be far beyond his normal vocabulary or Lee describes the flower petals in his hand at Henry and Beth’s wedding. This is clearly an artistic choice, which while tying the tone together more coherently, robs the characters of more individualized voices.
One of the results of a bracketed single-elimination competition is that, as in college basketball’s March Madness, the results are not necessarily reflective of overall strength but of the cumulative results of each single competition. A great team may have one bad day and be out. One book may be paired against a book that simply resonates better with a particular judge on a particular day. That bit of randomness is one of the things that makes the Buff Orpington exciting.
That said, the 2015 Buff Orpington winner is “Shotgun Lovesongs,” for a variety of reasons. Its firm sense of presence and people made it a more interesting read, though not necessarily any more compelling than the epic action of “Bird’s Eye View.” The characters of “Shotgun Lovesongs” felt more human, while many characters, especially ancillary ones, in “Bird’s Eye View” seemed stereotypical. The more experimental approach to a novel’s form in “Shotgun Lovesongs” pays off, while “Bird’s Eye View,” with its traditional historical narrative, is limited in the range it can even attempt and be true to its genre. Finally, over-manipulation of the narrative to achieve predetermined outcomes in “Bird’s Eye View” eventually weakened my engagement with the story, while the sheer openness of “Shotgun Lovesongs’” potential endings kept me turning the pages eagerly to the end.
Congratulations to Nickolas Butler’s “Shotgun Lovesongs,” the 2015 winner of the Buff Orpington Book Tournament.