Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Fiction Review: The Hearts of Men

I remember hearing intriguing reviews of The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler when it was first published in March, so I was glad for the opportunity to listen to the audio book this summer. It was an engrossing story of friendship and life’s ups and downs, following several generations.

In 1962 at age thirteen, Nelson Doughty is a social outcast, the classic geek who is an over-achiever but doesn’t have any friends. Every summer, Nelson goes to Camp Chippewa, a Boy Scout camp among the forests and lakes of Wisconsin. Nelson, is, of course, a stellar Scout, earning more merit badges than anyone else and aiming for Eagle Scout before he turns sixteen and then the military. He’s also the camp bugler, waking the other boys and counselors every morning by playing his WWI veteran grandfather’s battered trumpet.

This summer, Nelson thinks he might finally have made a friend. Jonathan is older than Nelson, but he was the only person to show up for Nelson’s birthday party back home. Jonathan is popular, handsome, and athletic, but he has shown some small kindnesses to Nelson. That summer at camp, Nelson suffers some horrible bullying, and though Jonathan doesn’t openly befriend Nelson, he does try to squelch some of the abuse and for that, Nelson is grateful and considers Jonathan a friend.

After immersing the reader in that summer of 1962 at Camp Chippewa, the novel then jumps forward in time several decades. Nelson did indeed join the military and fought in Vietnam, carrying scars both physical and emotional. He has now become the Scoutmaster of Camp Chippewa and once again spends his summers there. Jonathan married and took over his father’s company, making it a success, though he carries plenty of bitterness. The two erstwhile friends are reunited when Jonathan brings his teen son to camp.

Then the story once again jumps ahead in time several decades to Jonathan’s daughter-in-law and grandson, as they head to Camp Chippewa in this generational family tradition. The teen boy is not excited to still be going to camp, but his mom, who is chaperoning, is looking forward to seeing Nelson, her father-in-law’s old friend and the venerable head of the camp for many decades. The audio production brought all of these generations of men (and one woman) to life.

The Hearts of Men is an immersive story that pulls you into the woods of Wisconsin and the rustic Camp Chippewa along with its characters. Butler has developed a distinctive sense of place – and, in later chapters, nostalgia – that carries through time. It’s fascinating to see how the events of their youth affect both Nelson and Jonathan and the repercussions through multiple generations. It’s a sad (even horrifying) novel at times, addressing issues of bullying, abuse, infidelity, and divorce, and neither of the original two characters has a particularly happy life. But the novel also focuses on healing, family, and hope, bringing that old friendship full circle by the end. I enjoyed this emotionally complex and absorbing novel peopled with multi-dimensional, flawed characters.

400 pages, Ecco

You can listen to a free audio sample at the Audible/Amazon link below.

I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. My review is my own opinion and is not influenced by my relationship with the publisher or author.

Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.

Hearts of Men
by Nickolas ButlerHardcover

Or purchase The Hearts of Men from The Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.


  1. I like it when a story allows us to know all the background/childhood of characters to really understand why they are the way they are as adults.

    1. Me, too, Helen! Here, we saw not only how the children grew up into adults but also how their actions in 1962 affected their children & grandchildren!