Monday, March 13, 2017

The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler

Reading The Hearts of Men feels like sitting around a campfire listening to stories that warm both the heart and the soul. Beginning in 1962 at a northern Wisconsin boy scout camp, it envelops the reader in the life of thirteen-year-old Nelson. 
“Nelson has no friends. Not just here, at Camp Chippewa, but also back home in Eau Claire, in his neighborhood, or at school. He understands that this is somehow linked to his sash full of merit badges – twenty-seven to date, allowing him the rank of Star. It isn’t that earning merit badges is uncool, but the speed and determination with which he has added weight to his sash seems to be enviable, perhaps even pitiable. Possibly, his unpopularity is linked as well to his eyeglasses, though it might just as easily be his inability to dribble a basketball or throw a spiral, or worse yet, the nearly reflexive way his arm shoots into the classroom air to volunteer an answer. Nelson likes school, actually enjoys it, strives to win his teachers’ approval, the gratifying surprise in their faces when he delivers some bit of arcane historical trivia – the machinations of our legal system say, or the rarer elements on the periodic table. He can’t pinpoint it, that one thing about his personality, his being that, if changed, might win him more friends. But he dearly wishes he could. Wishes his mornings and afternoons weren’t limited to hallway wanderings or endless games of solitaire at otherwise abandoned cafeteria tables. Then again, maybe this is just who he is, and sometimes, when he is feeling brave, he embraces this notion, imagines himself as a wolf without a pack, roaming, free as can be, a solitary forest creature.”

Thus, Nickolas Butler introduces us to Nelson and places us nervously at his thirteenth birthday party in his backyard awaiting his fellow boy scouts arrival while knowing that they won’t come. Then “Miracle of miracles! Jonathan Quick, Life-Class Scout, fifteen years old, and already six feet tall. Varsity swimmer, junior varsity starting tailback, junior varsity backup shortstop, member of the glee club and the model railroaders” arrives. Jonathan’s appearance signals something different about this novel; it introduces kindness and the idea that old-fashioned honor will make this a singularly unique novel tracing the lives of Nelson and Jonathan and those they encounter.

The summer of 1962 at Camp Chippewa looks to be a Lord of the Flies rehash with the lowering of Nelson into the depths of a dark latrine to repay a debt only he was destined to settle, but what emerges is a tender tale of boys becoming men. Carrying a talisman from that venture, Nelson becomes something of a hero and the plot echoes a chorus of light emerging from darkness. As the years follow with Nelson adrift after Viet Nam and Jonathan building a profitable business, Jonathan’s son’s and grandson’s summers at Camp Chippewa anchor a tale of promises kept and those not honored.

Novels celebrating goodness triumphing over evil are common, but those showing the arc of what it takes to be good in the face of evil are rare. The Hearts of Men celebrates two distinct virtues – honor and fidelity. As I pondered the novel’s characters taking root in my heart, I wondered if honor and fidelity were the correct words to describe what Butler lays out for his readers. I grabbed my trusty, hardback Roget’s and found the words fidelity, faithfulness, loyalty, constancy, steadfastness, truth, and allegiance – all words that express exactly what the boys, men, and women of this novel embody.

When The Hearts of Men ventures into the present day and Jonathan’s grandson and daughter-in-law join the aging Nelson, now the camp’s celebrated director, at a camp that no longer seems equipped to address boys more attached to their screens than to the world around them, the climax fully demonstrates that honor and fidelity are timeless and universal. A sentence from the novel’s epigraph, “Where no one meant the promises they made” portends tragedy, yet the promise of love and light that Butler’s characters’ actions have built offers the reader hope and perhaps even redemption.

Nickolas Butler’s The Hearts of Men demonstrates that “The world is full of bad men . . . but if you are prepared, and if you are strong, then you cannot be taken off guard, and you will not be scared. And when they do come to your door in the middle of the night and you are there to greet them with all the light there is within you, all the strength, they are the ones who will run for the shadows.”

Summing It Up: Fall into The Hearts of Men to experience a joyful, wry tale of vulnerable characters who will inhabit your heart with their strengths and weaknesses to tell you why keeping promises is the route to becoming a good person. I adored Butler’s first novel, Shotgun Lovesongs and I’m grateful that The Hearts of Men offers more of his seemingly effortless prose and intricate plotting.  

One of my favorite sentences in literature is from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”  It is not often that a novel comes along that shows true friendship and good writing. The Hearts of Men is both. It’s a rare gem – an accessible story that pulls the reader in while exploring the universality of honor, truth, and yes, fidelity.

Note: Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly gave The Hearts of Men starred reviews and People Magazine chose it as its book of the week proving that it’s both an accessible read and fine writing.  The book was first published in Europe, where it’s a finalist for the 2016 Prix M├ędicis Etrangere.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book Club
Publication date: March 7, 2017
Author Website:
What Others are Saying:

“Butler achieves a rare triple play here of brilliant characterizations, a riveting story line, and superlatively measured prose, putting him in the front ranks of contemporary American writers of literary fiction.” — Booklist

“Butler’s latest delves into the meaning of loyalty and friendship, how some rise to life’s challenges while others fail... Fans of Butler’s award-winning Shotgun Lovesongs will welcome this impressive work with an outstanding ensemble cast. Top of the class for Butler on this one.” — Library Journal (starred review)


  1. This looks excellent. Thank you for the review and links, etc. Excited to have just put this on hold at the library.

    1. The audio version is supposed to be excellent as well.