Let’s get one thing clear: I loved this book. As a well-crafted piece of fiction I thought it was darn near close to perfect, and for me as a reader it was exemplary. Huzzah, Emily M. Danforth! What a debut!
SYNOPSIS (from Goodreads)
When Cameron Post’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief she’ll never have to tell them that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.
But that relief soon turns to heartbreak, as Cam is forced to move in with her conservative aunt Ruth. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and not making waves, and Cam becomes an expert at this—especially at avoiding any questions about her sexuality.
Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. To Cam’s surprise, she and Coley become best friends—while Cam secretly dreams of something more. Just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, her secret is exposed. Ultrareligious Aunt Ruth takes drastic action to “fix” her niece, bringing Cam face-to-face with the cost of denying her true self—even if she’s not quite sure who that is.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a stunning and unforgettable literary debut about discovering who you are and finding the courage to live life according to your own rules.
I want to tell you about why and how this book resonated so deeply for me. That should allow you to decide if you want to read it, too.
On the most basic level, I was fascinated by the ways that Cameron Post (Cam), the hero, was similar-to and different-from me (and, to be honest, she was more different than the same, even though I found so many little connections and she stirred up so many memories for me). She is an athlete: a competition swimmer, a distance runner, etc. She often gets up to no good, practicing stealing just ‘cause from a young age, breaking into an abandoned building with her buddies… She loves to watch movies – lots of movies, and many of them over and over. She’s artistic (see, her dollhouse decoration project). She’s not a great communicator or a people-pleaser. She’s gay. None of those things is true of me, yet I connected with Cam because her childhood reminded me so much of mine.
She grows up in a small town in Montana, but every moment described in part one, where she is 12, reminds me of my childhood running wild with my friends in rural Pennsylvania or subsequent adventures on the rural/suburban cusp in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Cam and I are two very different people who have rubbed elbows with similar settings in our lives, and I have thought thoughts she’s thought, although with Danforth’s help her insights were often articulated either more or less clearly (more when they were narrated…less when Cam puts them into words).
Maybe I connected so much with Cam because Danforth made her and her world so vivid for me, even though I’m not a very visual person. I tend to skip long explanations of what the landscape or a character looks like, and I generally don’t “see” what they look like in my own mind. My mental pictures are soft-focus, like I’m looking at the book’s world with my glasses off.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post was different.
Danforth never, ever, ever slowed me down by being overly descriptive, yet she made Cam’s world absolutely real to me. I feel like I could go to the hayloft she and Irene share their first kiss in, to the pond-like pool Cam practices swimming in, to Cam’s room with her large desk, taken up entirely by her doll-house and television. In the third part of the book, I saw Jane Fonda (not the famous one, but that’s really the character’s name) and “Viking Erin” and Adam as clearly as if they were my friends, or I’d seen the characters played in the movie version. When I finished the book, I told stories about the characters to my family, as if these fictional inventions were people I’d been hanging out with for years.
I’m visualization-challenged, yet it all felt and looked real to me.
Not only did Danforth bring her characters and the world to life, and draw me deeply into my own memories of a tomboy childhood on other peoples’ farms and subsequent attendance at an evangelical church, Danforth also presented an exceptionally clean and well-structured novel.
No moment is wasted. Everything is, eventually, pulled together – delicate spider web strands finding each other in the center to wrap up the novel at the end. Her plot pulls you through the three sections her book is divided into, keeps you in rapt attention, submerges you in the given moment (often unsure what it means or could mean in the future.)
At a key moment in the book, I literally cried out, shut the book, and took a break because Danforth’s set up had suddenly shown me just what was happening next, and I didn’t feel ready to handle it. (It turns out it was worse than I thought; my prediction was a shade off of the more poignant reality.)
I didn’t mind that I’d figured it out – I hadn’t until right before it happened, a hair before the character had to learn what was going on and feel her bubble of happiness burst. It was ingenious, the way that Cam makes observations, seemingly ordinary, that will be transmuted by the revelation of what is going on. Haven’t we all had that moment? There were all those signs, but those signs could have been there some other day, anyway. They didn’t have to add up to utter catastrophe. But then they did, and they were forever changed by the memory of what they meant, what they led to. We should have seen it coming! That is what this scene evokes, ushering in part three of the book with a crushing blow.
Danforth – via Cam – often plays with this idea of memory and experience and how it is shaped, how meaning is made. One of my favorite moments of this is Cam’s internal monologue about meaning creation in part two (p132 of my copy):
…if renting all those movies had taught me anything more than how to lose myself in them, it was that you only actually have perfectly profound little moments like that in real life if you recognize them yourself, do all the fancy shot work and editing in your head, usually in the very seconds that whatever is happening is happening. And even if you do manage to do so, just about never does anyone else you’re with at the time experience that exact same kind of moment, and it’s impossible to explain it as it’s happening, and then the moment is over.
Danforth’s novel, like all great literature, allows each reader to see the world in a more similar way than we otherwise would. We live Cam’s life with her, and while we might interpret it differently or have varied reactions to it, Danforth’s artistry in highlighting the right moments and providing context – her shaping – is the same for each of us. And it’s pitch perfect.
I also have a thing for sometimes-hard-to-like heroes. I prefer a protagonist who is too nuanced to simply adore – a character like Tyrion in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice & Fire series or Katniss in The Hunger Games trilogy. Often, I don’t even notice a character might be hard to like until I read someone else’s review – this was the case for me with Cam (the review I read that made me realize Cam is hard to like was by the fabulous “Wendy Darling”: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/…). I loved her and felt for her and hurt with her throughout the book, even as I recognized how questionable many of her choices, coping methods, and outbursts were.
I love Cam because, like everyone and everything in Danforth’s novel, she was painted with many different colors. She was not just one thing. I don’t like to say that ‘she wasn’t black and white, she was grey,’ because then she sounds colorless – and she most definitely wasn’t that. She was just raw and inconsistent in that perfectly imperfect human way. She was uncategorizable.
It amazes me how hard it is to think about the novel and come up with any purely two-dimensional character – someone who was all good or all bad. I can’t think of a character we were supposed to root for who didn’t have faults or a character who hurt Cam/made mistakes who didn’t still seem human and well-meaning.
I love this about Danforth’s novel.
I particularly love it because she tackled a subject that is wrapped up with a deep section of my heart (one that needs to be prodded, is powerful when engaged, but that hurts when touched) and generally is portrayed as clear-cut by either side. She explored something polarizing, divisive, and ideological and made it human, real, and messy.
Along with general “coming-of-age + being gay + Montana + the 90s” subject of the book, Danforth tackles evangelical Christianity’s relationship with queer folk (gay people, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered and intersex people… etc…although not naming each one or in any kind of cardboard cutout pamphlet way.) She placed part of her book (kind of a spoiler) in a “de-gaying” camp for Christian youth, run by an ex-gay minister.
I know people I really, really love who really, really believe that being gay is wrong and the just, kind, merciful thing to do is to try to help them. I don’t agree, but I also can’t write them off. In the book, Danforth and Cam have similarly clear sight and generosity while coming down firmly on the side of not trying to make people be someone they are not. For instance, the leader of this school/camp is portrayed as a really good guy who cares and is kind, even as what he’s doing to help Cam and the other youth warps them and numbs them.
Danforth tells a good story. She brings her characters and their world to life. She tackles an issue that is at the center of ideological debates without judging, even as she points out the perils of various “solutions” Cam and those around her attempt or have thrust upon them.
I think you could read this book from any perspective, any ideology, any point of view, and come away with a better understanding of the “other” than you had before. I will definitely be recommending this book to anyone who won’t be afraid of the red-hot issues it handles and is mature enough to deal with the relatively mild for adult fiction (but a lot for YA lit) sexual content and drug use.
However, I will especially be putting this into the hands of youth and adults who will see their own story reflected, in part, in Cam.
We don’t have enough characters like Cam, but especially when you put a high bar on the quality of writing and story-telling used to bring someone like her to life. The thing is, she isn’t just some gay kid – she’s an actualized literary person, and that’s why this book is readable and wonderful and why I selfishly didn’t want to share it when I first finished it. I loved it too much. Now, I’ve had time to process it, and I encourage you to read it and share it!