Friday, August 24, 2012

Guest Review: The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth

This is a guest review from Bookocalypse Book Reviews. They also wrote the Dare, Truth or Promise review.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a coming-of-age young-adult novel about a girl growing up in Miles City, Montana, USA. Her parents are killed in a car accident at Quake Lake the same day she kisses her best friend Irene for the first time. She’s twelve, and thinks it might be God punishing her.

For a book that begins with the main character being orphaned, it’s warm, funny and readable. Cameron is instantly engaging. She’s brave, independent, athletic, intelligent and daring. The book follows Cameron’s viewpoint and way of talking, giving the book a unique voice that is never forced.

It’s a lovely evocation of a small town, so well-drawn that it’s no surprise to read that the author, Emily Danforth, grew up there. I’m going to go ahead and assume that the book is somewhat autobiographical. The joy of the summer months, the confidence with which Cameron spends her days around town, the stores and festivals and local personalities, are wonderful to read. This does what a good book should: transport you to another time and place and make it feel real.

The book is roughly divided into thirds. The first is Cameron at age twelve and later, dealing with the terrible aftermath of her parents’ death at Quake Lake, a place that is woven into Cameron’s family’s past. She loses touch with Irene, and her aunt Ruth moves in with her and her grandma to help. Then we fast-forward to Cameron’s high school years, dominated by the blonde, popular Coley Taylor. The last third has Cameron attending God’s Promise, a school that holds that heterosexuality isn’t the opposite of homosexuality, holiness is. There’s an odd disjunction between the three parts of the book. Characters in one part disappear entirely in the next.

The two major events in the first third of the book – the first kiss; the car accidents – become consciously and subconsciously connected in Cameron’s mind. The closure of the book can also be read in this way, with Cameron freeing herself from the ‘God’s Promise’ school and the weight of her parent’s death.

Inevitably, Cameron runs up against religion, but it isn’t until the final third that it becomes a driving plot force. Cameron’s fundamentalist aunt and happy-clappy youth group are at first just another facet of her life. A visiting preacher who has made his fame by ‘curing’ homosexuals and other GLBTIQ people, is presented sympathetically (although his viewpoints are not). Cameron fits in the best she can, hangs out causing trouble like other young people her age, is in the swim team, has a couple of relationships, and goes to church because it’s expected of her. In short, she grows up. She deals with her grief through decoupage and obsessively watching films.

The trouble comes when Cameron is outed by her friend Coley Taylor, the cowgirl whose affair with Cameron, while her boyfriend is out of town, marks the second third of this book. Coley is an annoying character even before she turns on Cameron and lies to her family and friends and maybe even herself to convince the world that Cameron is a sick predator who ‘tricked’ her into kissing her.

For me, Coley’s betrayal doesn’t pack the emotional punch that might be expected. Cameron displays almost a weary acceptance; she’s been expecting something like this her whole life. We care about Cameron, who is infatuated with Coley, but not about Coley: it’s quite a nice change when Coley leaves the narrative. Coley is the centre of Cameron’s life (for a while) but never of the readers’ emotional engagement with the book. The middle ‘third’ to me dragged a little; it was well-written but nothing special and it did not convey much beyond the heady lust of teenage crushes and some well-drawn friendships. The strength here is the characters’ solid believability, and the author allows them the space to develop.

The last third is, for me, the strongest. Cameron is packed off to ‘God’s Promise.’ I expected this third of the book to be dark and painful, concerned with the emotional abuse of its GLBTIQ students, leading to angry showdowns and more grief for Cameron. In fact, it was my favourite part of the book and the least predictable. This is where the book deals with religious ‘re-education’ schools that “cure” LGBTIQ kids.

It’s a scary idea that unfortunately still has some traction, especially in the States. Danforth avoids the easy route of demonising the people who run it, showing Rick, at least, as a compassionate person who admits his own doubts, cares about the teens in his care and (frighteningly) believes in what he’s doing. Danforth makes us believe Rick is driven by love, which is some feat considering what his job is. There’s also humour, in the psychology posters the kids have to make, the ridiculous ideas about gender stereotypes, and the way the kids deal with it (using pot and parody).

Danforth manages to show that the school is incredibly damaging without making Cameron, and her friends Jane and Adam, into victims. Sure, Cameron finds ways to stay true to herself, makes friends, and even has some fun at the school, but Danforth doesn’t pretend she’s unaffected. Danforth shows us – in a particularly sad and horrific scene – the havoc that such schools can wreak on young lives. They can be well-intentioned, but they stem from hate and fear, and they cause young people to turn hate and fear on themselves. It’s the kids who swallow the doctrine and genuinely try to change that get hurt the most (because, duh, you can’t change your sexuality by attending extra bible classes).

Cameron is not unaffected, but nor is she reduced to an angsty, victimised wreck. This fits with her character: Cameron is a survivor. Her friends, Jane and Adam, are witty and their interaction with Cameron is tough and sweet. Cameron, Jane and Adam don’t rebel overtly; they just do their thing, almost shrugging off the doctrine that surrounds them, although Jane warns on Cameron’s arrival that everyone at the school ‘forget themselves.’ The book is very white, and most of the characters on the GLBTIQ spectrum are lesbians.

Cameron even makes tongue-in-cheek references to stereotypical lesbian culture shared by her friend from Seattle. There’s just one character who isn’t white and who challenges the binaries of gender and sexuality that dominate society. Adam is winkte, a person in the Lakota belief system who is born with two souls (and not marginalised, but plays an important role). In Adam’s words, “I’m not gay. I’m not even a tranny. I’m like pre-gender, or almost like a third gender that’s male and female combined.” He’s there because his father has denounced the Lakota belief system in favour of Christianity.

The book ends with an uncertain future for Cameron and her friends, but it’s hopeful and empowering as well. Cameron also finally comes to terms with her parents’ deaths. It ends with fledgling freedom, friendship and acceptance of Cameron (by herself and by others). While the book drags a little in the middle (it’s 470 pages) it’s well worth the read. It says something about the ‘lesbian experience’ (if there is one), the human experience (if there is one), and Cameron’s experience.

You can buy The Miseducation of Cameron Post on Amazon in Kindle and hardcover format

Ex-Gay Therapy in the Real World

This seems like a great time to point out the legislation currently being proposed in California: Protect youth from being forced into ex-gay therapy: SB1172, proposed by the California State Legislature to ban the use of SOCE (Sexual Orientation Change Efforts) with minors. There's a petition in support of it here.

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