What's Inside 'The Hearts Of Men'? A New Novel Forages For Answers Nickolas Butler's second novel unfolds over three generations at a Wisconsin Boy Scout camp. The story echoes Butler's own experience both at camp and learning about his father's affair.
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What's Inside 'The Hearts Of Men'? A New Novel Forages For Answers

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What's Inside 'The Hearts Of Men'? A New Novel Forages For Answers

What's Inside 'The Hearts Of Men'? A New Novel Forages For Answers

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In his second novel, "The Hearts Of Men," writer Nickolas Butler explores what it means to be a good man in a changing America. The story begins with an unlikely friendship struck at a Boy Scouts camp and unfolds over three generations. NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Nickolas Butler says this was a book he had to write. It grew out of his own musings on fatherhood.

NICKOLAS BUTLER: I was exploring some questions about what it means to be a good man, what it means to have a sort of code of morality or a code of conduct as a man.

NEARY: Growing up in Wisconsin, Butler was a Boy Scout, starting as a Cub and working his way up to Eagle. He says it gave him a love of nature along with a strong sense of right and wrong. So it was only natural that he set his story in a Boy Scout camp just like the one he attended from 7 to 17.

BUTLER: I think a lot of this book goes back to these sort of, you know - this is sort of hokey in the 21st century, but it goes back to a lot of these old scout laws or ideas - loyalty, bravery, kindness, stuff like that.

NEARY: The book opens in 1962, and the camp bugler is a boy named Nelson. He's a good kid. He likes school, and he likes the Scouts and is working to earn more badges than anyone. He's eager to please adults, but other kids just don't like him. And he doesn't understand why.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) 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's feeling brave, he embraces this notion, imagines himself as a wolf without a pack roaming free as can be, a solitary forest creature.

NEARY: That summer, Nelson does become friends with a boy named Jonathan. He's a cool guy, athletic and popular. The two aren't exactly close. Nelson is just grateful for whatever attention Jonathan throws his way, even when it leads him into a painfully humiliating incident that forges an unusual bond between the two. This unlikely friendship lasts a lifetime.

BUTLER: Over the course of years, they recognize in each other qualities that they themselves maybe don't possess but wish they did. And I think they also understand forgiveness.

NEARY: In the second section of the book, we meet the two as adults. Jonathan is bringing his teenage son to the same Boy Scout camp. Nelson now runs it. A Vietnam veteran, he returned from the war a changed man. He has neither money nor status, but author Nick Butler sees him as a heroic figure.

BUTLER: When a person can be strong or aggressive but chooses to be quiet and gentle and light on the planet, I find that incredibly inspiring and important. And I think Nelson has seen so much horror that he's just trying to be the light and the goodness in the world, and he understands that this camp is sort of a refuge.

NEARY: On the way to the camp, Jonathan and his son stop for dinner at a nearby restaurant where they're joined by a woman who Jonathan first introduces as a friend. During dinner, he tells his stunned son that he is having an affair with this woman and he plans to divorce his mother. Butler says this is exactly how he learned his own father was having an affair.

BUTLER: What really happened in that moment was just my whole paradigm of good and evil and promises and love really broke apart. And also my image of my dad was totally shattered. And part of the project of this book was to see my dad in 360 degrees, to understand who he was as a human being and why he'd put me in that position and also try and forgive him because he wasn't a totally bad man.

NEARY: The book ends in the near future. This time it's a mother taking her son to the camp. She's Jonathan's daughter-in-law Rachel. Her son has no interest in going to the camp, but his mother loves the place and plans to stay there as a parent volunteer. As she settles in for the week, she relishes the quietness.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) Her world sounds like this - mosquitoes, screen doors slamming, the wild running of boys, an ax splitting wood, the wind rustling the cops of aspens outside.

NEARY: As the only woman in the camp, Rachel's stay turns out to be less than idyllic. But Butler says it was important for him to end his book with a mother's story.

BUTLER: After that incident with my dad at the restaurant, I began to understand that my family was not held together by my dad at all but that my mom was the hero of our family. So I think it was sort of natural that the third act of this book goes to a mom, a single mom who's holding her son's world together and preserving the memory of her lost husband.

NEARY: By the book's end, the camp faces an uncertain future. And Baker (ph) says his book is a lament for what is lost when such a world disappears. Young people, he says, are losing their connection to the natural world, along with a code of honor that will follow them through life. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.


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