I added The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler to my reading pile after a tweet about it from a book blogger whose taste often mirrors my own. In that tweet, @seetanyaread said “The Hearts of Men by Nikolas Butler is slaying me. I started it last night and will finish tonight. One of my favs this year.” She later followed up with “OK, so now Nikolas Butler has me crying. Reading Hearts of Men.” Who could ignore that kind of review, right?
I am glad I followed her advice as The Hearts of Men is a compelling novel. Butler weaves the story of several generations of boys through a common link to a boy scout camp, Camp Chippewa in Wisconsin. Butler starts with Nelson Doughty who is an eager and socially awkward teenager embarking on his annual week in the summer of 1962. Nelson is an ambitious scout who is proud to play the bugle each morning at reveille, which only leads to make him more of a target for his peers. Nelson’s father is chaperoning, but seems oblivious to his son or the fact that he is being bullied, focused instead on his own dissatisfaction with life. Nelson feels that he has found one ally in Jonathan Quick, but even Jonathan leverages Nelson’s awkwardness and desperation for friendship in a dramatic scene.
The second section is set in 1996 with Jonathan now a father with his own teenage son embarking on his week at Boy Scout camp, now managed by Nelson Doughty. We learn how Nelson ended up at Camp Chippewa after the disappearance of his father, military school and a torturous tour in Vietnam. Meanwhile, Jonathan is engaged in an affair and arranges to introduce his son, Trevor, to his mistress at a dinner Nelson is also attending. Jonathan rides Trevor about Trevor’s high school love, Rachel, and sets out to prove that it will not last. The awkwardness is palpable and your heart burns for Trevor, but in the end, he is a teenage boy who is driven by things other than his heart at times.
The third and final section is set in 2019 and feels very similar to modern day. We are now met by Trevor’s son, Thomas, and his wife Rachel. They too are headed to Camp Chippewa, where an aging Nelson still runs the show. Thomas is less than enthusiastic about leaving his friends and easy access to WiFi to attend boy scout camp which feels old-fashioned and outdated. Rachel, one of the few mothers who has attended over the years, is eager to spend the time in the wilds of camp and connect her son to a part of his father never got to know. Once at the camp, the misogyny of the fathers is quickly apparent and leads to a horrifying encounter.
There were times throughout the novel where the scouting details became a little rote, however, the descriptions of the landscape are wonderfully vivid (the albino deer section was positively poetic). In the end, this was a novel about what drives men to be good and the things that can turn other men toward a more nefarious path.