Book Review: The Miseducation of Cameron Post, emily m. danforth (2012)

July 28th, 2014 10:57 am by Kelly Garbato

Un-put-downable!

five out of five stars

Cameron Post was twelve years old when she first kissed a girl. Her best friend Irene Klauson, in the Klausons’ hayloft, one hot, sweltering June afternoon before the start of seventh grade.

The very next day, Cam’s parents died. En route to the annual camping trip, their car jumped a guardrail at Quake Lake – where Joanie Wynton (now Joanie Post) and her family had escaped death by earthquake and flood decades earlier.

So begins The Miseducation of Cameron Post: The afternoon my parents died, I was out shoplifting with Irene Klauson.

The year is 1989, long before most Americans had heard of gay marriage, at a time when voters were repealing gay rights legislation not just in middle America, but on the West Coast as well. Growing up in the conservative, church-going small town of Miles City, Montana, Cameron doesn’t know what to make of her budding feelings for her best friend – and for the girls who will follow: Lindsey, Cam’s main competition during the summer swim meets; Coley, her impossibly gorgeous high school classmate and fellow church member; and Mona, an experienced college-aged lifeguard/Coley rebound.

Cam’s upbringing falls to two extended family members: Grandma Post, a regular visitor at the Post house; and Joanie’s sister Ruth, a born-again Christian who’s practically a stranger to the newly orphaned girl. While the Posts were semi-practicing Christians (church on holidays, mostly), Ruth makes attendance at an evangelical mega-church mandatory, with participation in the youth group Firepower close behind. Here Cam is treated to weekly lectures on the sin of sexual perversion, homosexuality chief among them.

When Cam is finally outed, Ruth sends her to Pastor Rick’s new school for troubled teens, God’s Promise Christian Discipleship Program. Spoiler alert: it’s not too far from Quake Lake, providing ample opportunity for the story to come full circle. (Cam initially blames her own “deviant” behavior for her parents’ deaths: the accident was God’s way of punishing her. In time – and, ironically, with a little help from God’s Promise cold-as-ice psychologist Lydia – Cam chooses to believe otherwise.)

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a stunning debut from emily m. danforth. Cameron, Irene, Coley, Jamie, Lindsey, Mona – these are some of the most authentic fictional teenagers I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. One part repudiation of ex-gay “therapy,” three parts coming of age story, Cameron’s tale is painfully relatable. While The Miseducation of Cameron Post is most likely to strike a chord with gay and lesbian teens grappling with their sexuality and society’s reaction to it, it’s not just for LGBTQ teens. Or teens, period. From Cam’s mechanical attempts to make it work with best bud Jamie, to her kleptomaniacal shoplifting habit and penchant for breaking into creepy abandoned buildings, there’s a little bit of Cam in all of us: awkward, unsure, hostile, sarcastic, rebellious, easily embarrassed, occasionally betrayed by our own adolescent bodies.

While Cam’s journey is mostly removed from politics – she’s less concerned with labels than being true to who she is – we do get a more radical element in the form of Lindsey, a Seattle native who serves as Cam’s lesbian mentor and lifeline to lesbian culture outside of Montana. There’s also Mona the lifeguard, who reminds Cam that the world is bigger than Miles City, and fellow God’s Promise disciples/potheads Jane Fonda and Adam Red Eagle. Adam further blurs the boundaries between “gay” and “straight”; a Winkte, he describes himself as a pre or third gender that’s both male and female. Not gay, not transgender, just different. While at God’s Promise, Adam and Cam engage in makeout sessions which Cam compares to those shared with Lindsey – fun but not emotionally serious – thus further illustrating the complex nature of human sexuality.

The era (late ’80s/early ’90s) and setting (small town Montana) loom large in The Miseducation of Cameron Post; so much so that both are major characters unto themselves. As a native New Yorker, I didn’t connect so much with the latter; but having been born just a year after Cam, the constant stream of ’90s references (Rented VHS tapes! Snail mail! Mix tapes!) stirred up a whole well of buried memories – not all of them bad. Cam’s mundane, day-to-day experiences serve as a reminder of what life was like pre-Internet: before Netflix, before instant messaging, before email. Back when care packages took weeks to arrive at their destination, renting movies meant checking them out in person, and research entailed asking a living, breathing librarian for assistance. (Now imagine doing that as a closeted kid in a small town, where everyone knows your name and gossip spreads like wildfire.)

There’s so, so much more to love about this story, but I’ll leave you to discover it on your own.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is rather hefty at 480 pages – not that that’s a bad thing! I savored every word, and felt that the story ended exactly when it needed to (although I can’t deny that I almost want to know what comes next for Cameron Post). It’s a lengthy read, but one that’s never boring or slow-going. This one’s going in my reread pile, for sure.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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