There are authors whom we read with the dedication of a lifelong relationship. We know their distinct voice, their turn of phrase, their favorite words that they slightly overuse. We know their admiration or disdain for strict grammar. We know their ability to turn a simple sentence into a piercing memory. Or maybe we simply know the feeling that each of their creations gives us, those distinct moods that they encompass in each of their works.
I have always said I loved “Shotgun Lovesongs,” a book whose characters I could not name today nor whose major plot points I could expound upon. But it was one of those books that I will always remember because of how it made me feel. The dusty dryness of small town dirt roads, the taste of whiskey on your tongue on a hot day, mistakes long gone but never forgotten, bright joyful memories just slightly tinged with despair and regret – these feelings, these sensations, that was that book. I will never forget it, in my own way.
So though “Shotgun Lovesongs” will always be on my list of suggestions to friends looking for a new book to discover, I cannot say the same of “The Hearts of Men.”
A generational saga that revolves around a Boy Scout camp, Camp Chippewa, starts in 1962. It opens with Nelson Doughty, 13, the Bugler for camp. He is lonely, bullied, precise and passionate. He plays his horn with the pure love and dedication that some of us never find for anything in our lives. In that hard summer at the camp he stumbles into a friendship with a boy named Jonathan. Through it all Nelson believes in doing what is right, no matter what.
Years pass. Abuse, war, divorce, loneliness. Both men grow in different directions.
Nelson becomes the Scoutmaster for the camp and in the second piece of the book Jonathan comes back with his son. Then in the third, Jonathan’s daughter-in-law and grandson return for their last summer.
Each of the three parts shows the bravery, steadfastness and kindness of Nelson. But revolving in and out of his life are male characters whose darkness show the more damaging and shameful aspects of humanity. Alcoholism, infidelity, lies, physical abuse, rape, emotional abuse. So it goes.
The female characters in this book seem to exist only to be the victims of the male characters. One is married to an abusive husband, one is another’s mistress, one is a stripper in a seedy club, one is a sweet mother with a close relationship with her son – which was the one positive female plot point until she is raped by another man and almost killed. And, of course, unable to save herself – she must wait for a male character to save her.
Their places within this narrative felt like a painfully true reflection of how women are treated and seen by men. As women, fear of men is something we learn and live with until the day we die. Being scared to drink a drink at a party, clutching mace in our pocket when we walk down a dark street at night, trying not to make eye contact with the guy following you down the street yelling at you to smile more, having friends walk you home – just in case.
We live our lives trying to maneuver within of the inherently dangerous state of simply being female in a male dominated society. I think that every woman who reads this book will feel the horrifyingly deep helplessness of the main female character because we are able to relate to it on an all too real level. It is, in one word, traumatic.
This book started as a novel that seemed to be a beautiful ode to camping, to honor and growing up, but it definitely ended on a different note. It slowly spirals into a depressing three part storyline that only makes us sadder as we continue to turn the pages. Are men really this awful? Are women really only seen as things to abuse, to pay for, to use, to keep, to conquer, to shut up, to save?
There is no ray of hope, no sun breaking through the clouds after the storm, no ultimate moment of redemption for most of these characters. Nelson is good and kind all way through, but he is the exception that proves the rule.