Nickolas Butler has done it again. He’s written a pitch-perfect novel of several generations of men (and one woman) in northern Wisconsin. I didn’t grow up in Wisconsin, or in a small town, but there is a universality to his characters and settings that makes his writing so accessible. I loved Butler’s first book, Shotgun Lovesongs, and I loved this book too.
Most of the action in The Hearts of Men takes place at Camp Chippewa, a Boy Scout sleepaway camp in the Northwoods, north of Eau Claire. The story begins in 1962 and ends in 2022, and the camp serves as a touchstone throughout the book for all the characters who visit it over time. It lives and breathes with all the boys and men who come to stay there, and leaves an indelible mark on each of them. It is a crucial part of their coming-of-age and a place of nostalgia in their adulthoods. The values of Scouting (duty to God and country; duty to other people; duty to self) are alternately embraced and violated by the characters we meet. There is Nelson, a Scout through and through who is bullied at Chippewa as a boy but eventually returns to be its director; Jack, a conflicted adolescent who comes back to camp with his son, Trevor; and finally, Trevor’s mom, Rachel, who is trying to raise her son Thomas to be like his father.
This book felt like a slice of life to me; maybe that’s because I’m a Midwesterner who has taken her son to Boy Scout camp. But it’s also a profound meditation on what it means to be a man and a parent in today’s world, and how to best raise our sons. It’s an examination of those Boy Scout values (and Midwestern values) that seem almost quaint nowadays. How can we live up to those standards when our world seems so corrupt? How do we rise above it all and set the right example? My heart broke for each of Butler’s characters as they suffered through cruelty at the hands of those who were supposed to be their friends.
One of my favorite books of the year so far. 5 stars.