The Miseducation of Cameron Post would be the cat’s entry for the William C. Morris award if she had a say in it. As a first break onto the YA – or any literary – scene it is definitely one hell of a statement, both topic-wise and literary wise. Giving us a brand new take on coming-of-age, Danforth introduces us to Cameron Post, who tells her story sometime after the event she’s narrating in the book, that of her finding her (sexual) identity.
At the age of 12, Cameron’s parents die in a tragic accident during a weekend trip up to Quake Lake. After the obvious initial shock Cameron can’t but feel relief…relief that now they will not find out that just the day before Cameron had kissed her best friend Irene Klauson. Having grown up in desolate, conservative, Miles City (aka Miles Shitty), Montana, Cameron is convinced that what happened to her parents is her punishment, and she no longer just feels relief, but also shame and guilt for having done what she did. Her parents’ death marks a shift in her friendship with Irene (the girls had previously been almost inseparable, the way 2 best friends can be in that innocent pre-teen stage of life). From then on the two drift apart – not just because Irene moves away to a fancy boarding school due to her family’s newfound richness – and Cameron tries to find solace in being cooped up inside, watching rental movies. The events surrounding Cameron’s first hesitant chaste kiss with Irene Klauson, her feelings for Irene before and after the kiss, the feelings of guilt and shame because of what happened to her parents are what determine the first part of the book. In the second part, Cameron’s aunt Ruth has moved in to take care of her. The kiss between Cam and Irene may have made Cameron feel guilty, the feelings which lie at the bottom of it don’t just disappear, and in the following years Cameron starts experimenting, mostly very innocently through the movies she rents (from Thelma and Louise to The Hunger). She also hooks up with Lindsey, a girl who comes to Miles City every summer for the swim competition. Contrary to Cameron, Lindsey is well aware of her sexuality, and seems to know all about the LGBQ-community (she’s from Seattle). In part 3 of the novel, things take a turn for the best and worst for Cameron when she gets to know Coley Taylor, a beautiful cowgirl who goes to the same church and youth group as Cameron. See, Aunt Ruth is a conservative person, conservative even in Miles City, and she has found God again (she’s a born again Christian), and she has Cameron join her when she attends Gates of Praise. Cameron has been in love with Coley ever since she first lay eyes on her. The two girls form a friendship, a friendship which of course gets complicated because Cameron clearly has romantic & sexual feelings for Coley, while Coley has a boyfriend and is (or seems) as straight as can be. Yet, the two girls bond, and when Coley’s boyfriend is away for the summer, they take their friendship to a new (sexual) level. But this is Miles City, Montana, and Coley exposes their relationship, overcome by feelings that she probably can’t explain herself, after which Aunt Ruth finds out, and ships Cameron off to “conversion camp”, God’s Promise… a de-gaying camp. God’s Promise is a religious school where Cameron is forced to face her sins, and where she will be “cured” of the sin of homosexuality. The stay and this camp and the way that Cameron has to deal with who she is forms the last part of the book.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is bulky book, closing in on shy of 500 pages, but it’s exactly this broad scope that renders the books its authenticity. Cameron’s voice is nothing if not real and authentic. From the way she talks about the period when she was 12 (1989) to the period at God’s Promise when she’s 17 (1993-1994), there’s a believability in what she tells us she felt at those times, and the way she behaves. Cameron may have been a good little girl at 12 (except for the shoplifting, of course), but over the years she starts to behave like any other teenager, experimenting with drugs, alcohol and yes , … sexuality. The only thing with Cameron, though, she doesn’t experiment with teens of the opposite sex, but of the same sex. And, yes, the conflicting feelings of being gay in an all-out conservative town isn’t lost on Cameron. She even ‘tries out’ her friend Jamie, despite the fact that she feels that it’s not how or who she is.
What makes this book also one of the truest around is the way the antagonists are portrayed. It would be very easy to put the blame on Aunt Ruth and the people at God’s Promise. But that’s not what happens. All of them are so completely and utterly convinced of what they are saying and doing that any form or trying to tell them otherwise is futile. So it’s like 2 parties talking/not talking to each other, and the only thing either of them say is “you’re wrong”. Cam is who she is, there is no changing, or de-gaying, or converting her, and Aunt Ruth, Reverend Rick and even Lydia are who they are, despite Lydia’s secular Cambridge (England!) education. After a particularly horrible event at God’s Promise, Cameron observes: “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.” (p.399) This is the farthest that Cameron herself goes in condemning and blaming the others for sending her to the camp. And even though this might not sound all that militant, it definitely reinforces the feelings of frustration that she feels, and that you as a reader will feel about what’s going on not just with Cameron, but with and to so many other real teens who go – willingly or unwillingly – to these types of camps. In a side note, the conversation that Cameron and aunt Ruth have when Cameron gets to go home for Christmas and when they reflect on Cameron’s ‘healing’ process is probably one of the most lifelike conversations ever between a teen and an adult who’s supposed to be the person with all the control and power over said teen (p. 342-344): neither of them know what the other feels and they just can’t get out of that situation.
Apart from an honest exploration of a teen’s sexual identity, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is also descriptively a beautifully written novel, yes slow-moving, but oh so atmospheric because of it. The detailed descriptions of the rural Montana setting will draw you into an almost alien world if you’re – like the cat – not accustomed to the landscape Danforth is describing. Likewise, when Cameron describes how the other girls make her feel, for instance, it’s like she wants you bring home that experience as much as possible so that it feels not just the most natural thing ever, but also universal, because ‘hey look, this is all how we fall in love, how we experience first kisses,…’: “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. And I hadn’t dared her to do it, but I was glad that she did.” (p.10)
The Miseducation of Cameron Post will be hailed as a great LGBQ-novel, but it’s more than just that. It explores identity and sexual identity, yes, but in doing so in transcends that mere label, which could (but definitely shouldn’t) limit its exposure. It’s also just a beautifully written novel with a great protagonist who’s at a turning point in her life. And again, what is more engaging and beautiful in a piece of literature than a character finding his/her place in the world?