The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler

Review published on May 17, 2017.

This author has written with great heart and style, setting the tale of teenager Nelson Doughty in an area of the US (Wisconsin) in which he himself lives.

Our views of American summer camps for boys may conjure the hilarious song ‘Hello Mother, Hello Father, here I am at Camp Granada,’ but at Camp Chippewa in 1962 there is nothing to laugh about for Nelson (or Bugler as he is known for rising at dawn to blow the horn to wake his fellow Scouts).

Nelson is a kind boy but he has no friends. He is loved by his mother but dismissed by his father. In trying to gain favour that fateful summer, he has to overcome some terrible trials. The first few chapters are hauntingly sad to witness Nelson’s life.

But do friendships with Jonathan Quick and Head Scoutmaster Wilbur mean a more hopeful future for Nelson?

This is a real-life story of a young naive boy, growing and experiencing the real world with all its knocks, but also for Nelson are subtle times of overwhelming compassion.

Butler writes beautifully about the wilderness around the camp, its nature, its animals and birds. His genuine insight into mother/son relationships particularly are wonderfully pitched and emotionally charged.

“Scouting, as an organisation … was a dogged fraternity of paramilitary Young Republicans …” is one sentence that might for me have made the subject matter not one I would have approached. However, this book challenges a lot of preconceptions about what might go on in such summer camps so that even the tragedies are balanced by many life affirming friendships and understanding of right and wrong.

A great personal read as I had no expectation that it would engage me so deeply with the characters. Also, interesting subject matter for book groups that would engage across all age groups.

Nickolas Butler already has an award for his debut novel Shotgun Lovesongs – I am anticipating this follow up will gain more plaudits.

Philipa Coughlan 5/4

The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler
Picador 9781509827893 hbk Jul 2017

 

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