Butler, author of the very popular Shotgun Lovesongs, sets this tale at Camp Chippewa, a Boy Scout camp in northern Wisconsin.
Nelson, the bugler, is the first boy we meet. He is a small, studious nerd, working hard to attain the rank of Eagle Scout. He is also the object of teasing and ridicule by the other boys. Each morning he arises in his single tent, polishes his bugle, shines his shoes, sharpens the crease in his uniform, and sounds "Reveille", awakening a camp full of Scouts. Despite the Scout Oath to remain physically strong and mentally awake, often, many of the boys are neither, and quite a few are hung over, as is Nelson's own father who serves as one of the camp's chaperones. Scoutmaster Wilbur, who runs Chippewa, befriends Nelson, and acts as a father figure in place of Nelson's own ineffective dad. An older, popular boy named Jonathan is Nelson's only friend at camp, and sticks up for him when he's taunted by crueler boys. Jonathan and Nelson remain life-long friends in this epic story that spans three generations from the years 1962-2022.
After Nelson's father dies, the boy is sent to military school and then West Point. Ultimately he serves in the elite forces in Vietnam, where he sees horrible things. When he returns home, he finds it hard to find and hold down a job. Eventually he became the Scout Master and Camp Director at Camp Chippewa, and enjoys the solace of living in the remote widerness year round. However, Scouting and the camp both have changed by this point. There is no longer a bugler to play "Reveille", so the song is prerecorded. Boys seem glued to thier electronic devices, texting each other across the tent. Such traditional badges as orienteering, radio and stamp collecting are obsolete. But it is still a place where Scouting values are promoted, and it is where Jonathan's grandson Thomas goes to camp.
The author excels at storytelling, and imbues his writing with North Woods atmosphere and charm. Butler conveys so much emotion on each page; once I started The Hearts of Men, I couldn't put it down. I recommend this book to both men and women, but perhaps not to young Scouts, as there are very mature themes in this novel. I enjoyed The Hearts of Men so much, and I can't wait to read it again when I prepare it for book discussion.