The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Emily M. Danforth, Balzer + Bray (2012)
My expectations of this book were already high due to positive buzz from Malindo Lo and others, and let me tell you: I was not let down, not once. Throughout the entire book, I knew that this reading experience was different, so much more epic, than queer YA reading experiences I’d had in the past, but I didn’t know quite how to tie that feeling down into words. What I eventually came up with — and I don’t mean this to be derogatory towards other YA novels at all — is this: this book is simply so much more ambitious than most YA novels, in the way that it aims to capture not just one experience or one storyline, but the story of Cameron Post’s entire youth life. It feels big, 470 pages big, and it is masterfully rendered.
The grief that dominates this story appears in the first line of the book.
The afternoon my parents died, I was out shoplifting with Irene Klausen.
That is one whopper of an opening line.
Her parents’ death (again, via car accident) coincides with Cameron’s first childhood love with Irene Klausen in middle school (I think I was twelve!), the love that, while Irene quickly disappears from Cameron’s life to another town and changes indeterminably in her mysterious distance, feels more authentic and true than almost anything else that follows. Throughout the rest of the novel, even when she’s not mentioned, even if you are unsure of whether Cameron will ever see her again, you almost feel Irene’s presence and her importance to everything.
Then there’s Lindsey, the Experienced One, savvy in lesbian culture and lingo often to pretentious heights. I mean, she’s from Seattle, which seems a world away to Cameron, who lives in a small town in Montana, perhaps one of the least-friendly environments in which to grow up as a lesbian. Lindsey is a brief flame but continues to be a steady friend to Cameron, a sort of rock of lesbian inspiration, even when Cameron doesn’t need it.
And then there is Coley Taylor. Just something about Coley’s name makes you nervously bite your lip and think, This girl is going to be big. She’s the beautiful, perfect, supposedly-straight heartbreaker cowgirl, who I couldn’t stop picturing as Lyla Garrity from Friday Night Lights. She’s that girl the whole town is charmed by, the one you kind of want to hate from the start but who finds ways to seem like a real human being at enough points that you just can’t hate her—at least at the beginning.
And then there is everything after Coley Taylor. I fear I have already told too much about this story, but since I’ve come this far, I’ll tell you that what comes after Coley is something called God’s Promise Christian School & Center for Healing, run by one Reverend Rick and a real bitch named Lydia.
The way Danforth deals with faith and Christianity in this novel is so interesting and lovely. Cameron possesses the ability to be angry without being bitter, to be clear-headed and never doubt who she is, and to know all the things that are wrong while still having empathy and compassion and a type of admiration of the good Christian people around her.
Even way before God’s Promise, she describes the push-and-pull of influences in her life that hover over her, while she still never truly questions the reality of her sexuality:
[Lindsey] started me in on the language of gay; she sometimes talked about how liking girls is political and revolutionary and counter-cultural, all these names and terms that I didn’t even know that I was supposed to know, and a bunch of other things I didn’t really understand and I’m not sure that she did then, either — though she’d never have let on. I hadn’t ever really thought about any of that stuff. I just liked girls because I couldn’t help not to. I’d certainly never considered that someday my feelings might grant me access to a community of like-minded women. If anything, weekly services at Gates of Praise had assured me of exactly the opposite. How could I possibly believe Lindsey when she told me that two women could live together like man and wife, and even be accepted, when Pastor Crawford spoke with such authority about the wicked perversion of homosexuality?
Throughout the novel, whenever Cameron is able to transcend past numbness, she seems to be in a place of just trying to understand — trying to understand herself, and everyone else, and her past, and everything in between, even in such an extreme place as God’s Promise. Good friends and pot and alcohol help. There is a lot of pot. And a lot of movies rented on VHS. And redecorating an old dollhouse, a random and complex pursuit which is hard to explain but which was my favorite part of the book.
In the end, it is not really her attraction to the ladies that has ever been a problem for Cameron; it is dealing with the loss of both her parents at once, just when she was starting to grow up, a loss that is gigantic and deep. Yet even with this grief, Cameron Post is funny and sincere and real, and I felt like I was a complete part of her world throughout the whole epic tale, a world that I was sad to see go when I reached the 470th page. Emily Danforth has crafted a masterpiece, and I truly cannot recommend it enough.
As a last note for this month, perhaps quite predictably, The Hunger Games movie has prompted a lot of discussion in the literary world and on the Internets about the current prominence of contemporary YA literature and the female role within it, with varying degrees of immaturity and brilliance written on the topic. Among many other articles, there were varied debates presented in the New York Times. And just this week, YA officially went fancy when The Atlantic started a new column dedicated to the adults-reading-YA phenomenon. Their first article in the series presented a list of the Greatest Girl Characters in Young Adult Literature, which was a pretty decent list aside from the fact that most of them were real old (I mean, Betsy-Tacy? Really?), and also technically children’s or juvenile fiction rather than Young Adult, with the exception of the one seemingly random inclusion of Liesel from The Book Thief. In other words, it seemed more like a nostalgic list of girl characters that Old White People grew up reading. While all the girl characters included are indeed wonderful and important to the genre of children’s literature, my hope is still that older readers will eventually realize the depth of the vastly more diverse and exciting range of books considered to be YA today, even beyond the sparkling few that become blockbusters.