I have a terrible confession to make. I threw a punnet of raspberries into my backpack with The Hearts of Men by Nicholas Butler,and they spilled. I didn’t notice, so sticky red mush went through all of the pages. I’m off to the library to confess and pay for my crime tomorrow, but right now, I feel like the worst type of criminal.
The Hearts of Men begins with Nelson Doughty at Camp Chippewa in the early 1960s with his father. Nelson is the boy everyone hates, for the same reasons that make him a success when he becomes an adult. He loves his mother, plays the bugle each morning for reveille and earns more scouting badges in a week than most boys will in a lifetime. Although Nelson is an outcast amongst his peers, he becomes friends of sorts with one of the popular boys, Jonathan. Their scoutmaster also encourages Nelson and convinces him that he is a leader in the making.
The years pass and Nelson, now a veteran from the Vietnam War, becomes the scoutmaster of Camp Chippewa. He and Jonathan reconnect when Jonathan brings his son to camp. Nelson is a good man, and Jonathan is not, but somehow, they still connect. Nelson is an unlikely guest during an uncomfortable dinner when Jonathan introduces his mistress to his teenage son, and later, Nelson is there for Jonathan’s daughter-in-law and grandson when they need him.
I was terrified the whole way through this book that one of the characters would turn out to be a paedophile. I’m not sure if this is a reflection on me being a horrible person who thinks horrible things or the result of so many church and scout leaders over recent years being exposed for their despicable behaviour. Either way, happily, I was wrong and none of the characters were this. Instead, many of the characters were courageous and true, exactly what the Boy Scout movement would want their troops to be.
The Hearts of Men started well but lost some of its impact once Nelson grew up, around the middle of the book. The second half of the book had some strong areas, but did not live up to the earlier promise. The idea of men’s hearts being so different, some strong and good and true, while others are flawed and false was shown through various behaviours. The bullying of Nelson as a child was painful to read, as was Jonathan’s undermining of his son. Other character’s behaviours were shameful and made me feel angry, but throughout it all, Nelson lived a good life.
Despite my mixed feelings about The Hearts of Men, I’m looking forward to reading Shotgun Lovesongs by this author.