The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth (2012)
It would be hard not to sympathize with Cameron after all she's gone through, but she's also an incredibly genuine character in many ways. She's wonderfully imperfect: she smokes pot, shoplifts, and says "fuck" a lot. Her sexual experiences are honestly rendered with hesitation, awkwardness, and guilt. Her feelings are channeled into her childhood dollhouse which she began decorating after her parents' death. She uses various detritus in her life in unusual ways, such as decoupaging the mother and father figures with newspaper clippings about her parents' car accident. Her narrative voice is honest and matter-of-fact.
I think one of my favorite parts of the book is early on, just after her parents are killed. Cameron rents the movie Beaches because she remembers that a young girl's mother dies, and she needs cues about how she should act. Heartbreaking! But so believable: we do expect certain things to come with grief, and they don't always. Isn't it nuts that when we're dealing with tragedy, we are so concerned with our outward appearances? But that's just one of many ways in which this story, and Cameron Post, are so real.
But Cameron isn't the only well-rendered character in the book. Her friend Lindsey is sort of her lesbian mentor, as she lives in a more accepting environment and is attuned to the gay community. She is also pretty militant and lectures Cameron about various issues; Cameron frequently hears Lindsey's voice in her head when she's dealing with something she knows Lindsey would have an opinion about. Often she ignores that voice. Jane is her first friend at God's Promise, and has a colorful background having been raised in a commune (something of which school leaders definitely disapprove.) She has a prosthetic leg in which she hides a stash of the pot she grows nearby. Completing the friendship trio is Adam, a Native American who says he is not gay, but is a winkte or "two-souls person," a special designation usually revered in his culture. I really enjoyed all of Cameron's relationships and her complicated feelings about the people in her life.
Another of my favorite aspects of this book is how the leaders at God's Promise are portrayed. It would have been easy to make them all villains for wanting these kids to change something unchangeable about themselves, but Danforth didn't do that. Pastor Rick was a truly likable guy who, though misguided, absolutely believed in what he was teaching and sincerely cared about these kids. With all the political rhetoric thrown around, it can be difficult to remember that sometimes people who believe things you find abhorrent may still be nice people. They are multi-dimensional just like all of us. That was captured very well here.
Ultimately, this novel is less about Cameron's experiences at God's Promise than her unresolved feelings about her parents' deaths. Watching her grow as a person throughout the book and find peace within herself was much more important than whether or not she was able to get away from her oppressive school environment. A little meatier and sophisticated than a lot of young adult fiction, I would think this would appeal more to older teens, but it's also a great crossover title for adults. I'm glad it's a book group pick because I'm really looking forward to discussing some of these things with other people, and hearing what they noticed that I may have missed. I could continue to go on and on about this book - there's so much to discuss and to love. But all I really need to say is this: read it. You won't be sorry.