by Emily M. Danforth
If you were to lay out a visual storyboard for The Miseducation of Cameron Post, it would be filled with lomographic photography–retro lighting, wide-open vistas, saturated colors, and quirky, sometimes blurry exposures that provide quick snapshots of the many small pleasures of childhood. This coming of age novel, which is written more like adult literary fiction than typical YA, beautifully captures the sun-drenched mood of summer as we meet Cameron, a young girl living in a small town in eastern Montana in 1989.
It was the kind of heat where a breeze feels like someone’s venting a dryer over the town, whipping dust and making the cottonseeds from the big cottonwoods float across a wide blue sky and collect in soft tufts on neighborhood lawns. Irene and I called it summer snow, and sometimes we’d squint into the dry glare and try to catch cotton on our tongues.
It’s a pleasure to be lulled into the slow rhythm of the author’s words and to enjoy the moments of stillness and spontaneity throughout the entire story. As the novel begins, Cameron’s parents have gone off on their annual camping trip, and she’s spending the summer with her best friend Irene, eating too-big scoops of ice cream and strawberry pretzel salad, freezing wet shirts to keep cool, telling stories, and watching the twilight creep over the town. There’s a new awareness between the two girls, however, which floods Cameron with pleasure and confusion when things suddenly take an unexpected turn.
There’s nothing to know about a kiss like that before you do it. It was all action and reaction, the way her lips were salty and she tasted like root beer. The way I felt sort of dizzy the whole time. If it had been that one kiss, then it would have been just the dare, and that would have been no different than anything we’d done before. But after that kiss, as we leaned against the crates, a yellow jacket swooping and arcing over some spilled pop, Irene kissed me again.
Later, the girls talk about how they’d get in trouble if anyone found out.
Even though no one had ever told me, specifically, not to kiss a girl before, nobody had to. It was guys and girls who kissed–in our grade, on TV, in the movies, in the world; and that’s how it worked, guys and girls. Anything else was something weird.
Shortly afterwards, Cameron’s parents die in a car crash and she’s sent to live with her conservative Aunt Ruth in the small town of Miles City, Montana, where she does her best to fit in and forget what happened before. So when beautiful Coley Taylor arrives on the scene, it spells trouble in a big way–and things spiral out of control in Cameron’s world when she is sent off to God’s Promise, a Christian de-gaying camp. (The author addresses this very frankly in most of the interviews I’ve seen, so I’m assuming it’s not a spoiler to include that info here.) Here, she is to learn “appropriate gender roles” and refrain from “negative bonding over sinful/unhealthy desires.”
I wasn’t sure what to expect with this novel, so it was a relief to find it doesn’t feel at all heavy-handed. I’ve realized recently that the problem I have with so many Message Books is that you can so clearly tell the author set out with an agenda and just filled in additional details to make a story. However, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a fully realized novel in every way, and if Cameron weren’t gay, it would still be a well-crafted, well-written story with an immensely appealing protagonist…even if she’s not always completely likable. But I sort of like that about her, you know? Because most of us were pretty unbearable as teenagers, and I found her prickliness and defiance to be sympathetic and very real.
Fair warning that Cameron is just as likely to tell you to eff off as she is to bum a smoke off you, though. For even though there are beautiful moments of stillness and jumbled, joyous images of childhood (Cameron puts a piece of flourite in her mouth at one point so she can taste its hardness and grit, which is something I totally did as a kid), there are also frank sexual situations, marijuana use, shoplifting, and all kinds of other things that might normally drive me up the wall when they’re casually included in your typical YA book.
But this isn’t a fluffy young adult novel at all, and it’s easy to understand why Cameron acts out as she tries to figure out who she is under extremely difficult circumstances. Not to mention that her feelings are not at all unusual; Cameron’s confusion and longing during the prom scene when Coley dances with someone else is that stuff of universal loneliness and despair. As a reader, it also hurt unbearably to read about Mark Turner, son of a preacher from a mega church in Nebraska, who is the “poster boy for a Christian upbringing, but yet here he was, at Promise, just like the rest of us.” Mark’s struggles with his faith and his natural impulses are devastating to witness, and it’s a brutal reminder that there are sometimes terrible consequences when we ignore what’s right in the name of what’s righteous.
I appreciated how honestly teenage sex and experimentation were portrayed, in a way that didn’t feel tacky or sensationalized. And I appreciated the restraint with which this enormously touchy subject was handled. I found myself getting very angry as I read the book–it’s hard not to when you see a child being told unequivocally that he’s going to hell for what he feels–but the story is remarkably even-handed. While Cameron is defiant and angry over her containment, as most of the kids are, the few harsh words about the program include “I’m just saying that sometimes you can end up really messing somebody up because the way you’re trying to supposedly help them is really messed up.” Instead of using this platform to rant or rage, the author simply allows us to get to know Cameron and provides the framework for the question: after reading this girl’s story, which is the story of so many girls and boys just like her, can anyone deny the validity of her feelings?
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a fierce book that boldly explores identity, sexuality, and human responsibility in a relatable way, even as it demands attention from your social conscience and reaches out for your empathy. Even with such a hot-button topic, however, it somehow manages to refrain from outright condemnation of those who oppose its views. It’s a shame that twenty years after the events of this book, this type of tolerance is still not entirely a two-way street.
About the Book
The author was partially inspired by the true story of a 16-year-old boy who said he was being sent to a de-gaying camp in Tennessee. Read more about this in the author’s interview with author Curtis Sittenfeld.
Emily Danforth also has a deleted scene from the book on her website.
Recommended for mature teens and adults only. This review also appears on GoodReads.
Rated 5 out of 5 stars