Friday, May 2, 2014

Review: "The Miseducation of Cameron Post" by Emily M. Danforth

The day that Cameron Post kisses a girl for the first time, her parents die in a car accident.

While every one of her peers in tiny Miles City, Montana struggles with romance, rebellion, and boredom, her orphan status--and her infatuation with her female friends--sets Cameron apart. She is convinced that God took her parents away to punish her for her sinful ways, but she can't stop thinking about beautiful, graceful Coley.

It's only a matter of time until someone realizes that the heart Cameron wears on her sleeve is rainbow-hued--and when they do, they will set out to fix her.

  2 out of 5 stars

The first time I picked up Emily M. Danforth's The Miseducation of Cameron Post (blurb: "If Holden Caulfield had been a gay girl from Montana, this is the story he might have told"), I read it from cover to cover without taking a breath.

The story Danforth has written hinges on some really gut-wrenching fears. What if your parents died suddenly and you never got to speak to them again? What if their death was a punishment on you? What if the person you love accuses you of something terrible? What if everyone you know turns on you in disgust and sends you away? What if you really are a monster? For readers who are young, uncertain, conflicted about the many different people they could grow up to be, this book is terrifying.
"Oh honey-girl," Grandma said when she saw the mess in the sink. "You need to get into bed now, sweetheart. You'll feel better if you do. I'll get you some water."

I wouldn't answer her back and I stayed completely still, willing her to just leave me alone. She left but came back with a glass of water, which she set on the floor next to me because I wouldn't take it from her. Then she left again and this time returned with a can of Comet, a rag. After all that had happened Grandma was going to clean the sink, clean up after me, another mess, and it was this moment that somehow made what she had told me take hold. Seeing her there in the doorway with that green can, her pink eyes, the hem of her nightgown peeking from beneath her housecoat, Grandma stooped over with a yellow rag, sprinkling out the cleanser, that chemical-mint smell puffing around us, her son dead and her daughter-in-law dead and her only grandchild a now-orphaned shoplifter, a girl who kissed girls, and she didn't even know, and now she was cleaning up my vomit, feeling even worse because of me: That's what made me cry.

And when she heard me crying, finally saw me with actual tears, she got down on the floor, which was painful for her, I knew, her bad knees, and held my head in her lap and cried with me, stroked my hair, and I was too weak to tell her that I didn't deserve any of it.
But when I reread The Miseducation, my initial breathless investment waned. Only then did I notice the strange shallowness of this aimless narrative.  The emotional impact of the book comes from the reader's willingness to map their own feelings onto the framework of Cameron Post, orphaned Montana tomboy, not from the story itself.

Cameron's personality is accommodatingly bland (the better to project yourself onto, my dear!) She plays a passive role throughout her own "miseducation," watching as other characters make decisions for and about her. Other characters choose, act, decide; Cameron goes along with it. There is something to be said for teenaged aimlessness--but it makes for dull reading.

And that's exactly what The Miseducation of Cameron Post is, if the reader doesn't slather it like jam with their own emotions and experiences. A meandering description of teenaged antics in a small Montana town, punctuated with lists of girls (and boys) Cameron snogs. At the three-quarter mark, she is packed off to an anti-gay camp, abruptly introducing an entirely new cast of characters, where she continues to take a backseat to her own story until the book reaches its unsatisfying conclusion.

The time Cameron spends in the conversion-therapy camp is the most compelling section of the book. This has nothing to do with Cameron's characterization and everything to do with the hot-button issue of such "troubled teen" camps. I respected Danforth's sensitivity regarding the people who staff places like this--part retreat, part prison--who are, by and large, motivated by the desire to help people. On the other hand, it's disturbing to realize that places like God's Promise Center For Healing (fictional) and Love In Action (real), because they are privately-run, often have no overseeing authority, that their counselors may have little to no psychological training, and that their "treatments" are based on whatever seems like a good idea to their founders rather than on techniques proven to be effective--or safe for their "patients."

The stories that come out of camps like Cameron's are often sad--and hair-raising.

But borrowing from real-life horrors fails to sell me on The Miseducation of Cameron Post, any more than its reliance upon reader projection passes for compelling characterization. A book that requires the reader to provide all of the emotional content themselves is not a good book.

For tales about young queer girls coming of age in underprivileged rural environments, falling in love with their straight cowboy-hat-wearing friends, and dealing with difficult family situations (now isn't that a specific list?) I prefer Julie Anne Peter's Far From Xanadu. Remind me to tell y'all about that one of these days.

Complexity of Writing: 2/5
Quality of Writing: 2/5
Strength of Characterization: 1/5
Logic of Plot Development: 1/5
Evocation of Setting: 4/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 1/5
Resolution of Conflict: 2/5
Emotional Engagement: 4/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast:  pass
Content Warning: character deaths, drugs, homophobia, self-harm

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