Author Emily Danforth. (Erica Edsell )
The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Emily M. Danforth
Balzer & Bray: 480 pp.: $17.99, for readers age 14 and up
There's something about the open spaces of the Great Plains that make the exploration of nascent homosexuality even more alienating and risky than the same experience in a big city or suburb. At least that's the story detailed in Emily Danforth's young adult debut, "The Miseducation of Cameron Post," a book that reads like a literary response to the Katy Perry hit "I Kissed a Girl" if it took place under a big Montana sky.
Cameron Post is just 12 when she kisses her best girl friend on a dare — ostensibly as practice for future liaisons with boys. "No one had ever told me, specifically, not to kiss a girl before, [but] nobody had to," Cameron writes in a novel penned from her perspective. "It was guys and girls who kissed in our grade, on TV, in the movies, in the world. That's how it worked."
Yet Cameron not only kissed a girl. She liked it.
That realization is followed a few hours later by the news Cameron's parents were killed in a car crash, but the sorrow she feels at her parents' death is tempered with even greater relief that no one knew about her more-than-friendly lip lock in a hay loft — and guilt that the crash may have been God's punishment. That juxtaposition of emotions speaks volumes about shame and the societal taboo of lesbianism, especially in a small Christian community. It also forms the emotional core of this powerful novel exploring the nature of sexual identity and whether it's a choice.
"The Miseducation of Cameron Post" is being published as a young-adult title and is presumably for modern-day teens. It does, however, take place in a bygone era with pop-cultural references that are more likely to resonate with readers who came of age in the late '80s and early '90s, rocking out to Guns N' Roses or watching Mariel Hemingway explore her character's bisexuality in the film "Personal Best." The story Danforth tells could easily take place today, but setting it two decades in the past and in the same small Montana town where the author herself grew up, more closely links the fictional story of Cameron Post with the closeted childhood Emily Danforth experienced in real life — to a point.
Danforth, 32, was born and raised in Miles City, Mont. — a place best known for an annual event that once held the Guinness record for most intoxicated people per capita. In "Miseducation," it's a town where Cameron simultaneously investigates her sexual inclinations, through movie rentals and secret make-out sessions, and suppresses them, through the straight friendships she forms in the teen church group her born-again Christian aunt and guardian has forced her to join.
Danforth is a talented wordsmith who recounts these experiences not only with impeccable phrasing but emotional and visual clarity, drilling down into individual moments and dwelling there in slow motion to help readers experience Cameron's hopes and fears as she lives out the common lesbian fantasy of sleeping with her heterosexual best friend — and the nightmare of being caught for it. It's at this point that Cameron's miseducation truly begins in this elegantly explorative novel told in three parts. After Cameron not only realizes she's attracted to women, after she acts upon it, she's sent to a fundamentalist boot camp designed to straighten out gays, where the opposite of homosexuality isn't heterosexuality but holiness, as God's Promise Christian School for Healing claims in its brochure.
The experience is "like living in a diorama rather than the real world," Cameron writes.
The story line of a religious group designed to "fix" homosexuality is intriguing, but in "Miseducation" it almost feels as if it should be a separate book. After 254 pages of getting to know Cameron and her Miles City peers, the story moves to a new locale where the main through line is Cameron and a whole new cast of characters enters the story. Interesting as it is to read about the process of "de-gaying" and the reasons God's Promise elicits from its residents as to why they became lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, it slows the book's momentum. Still, Danforth has crafted a story that's likely to be remembered long after readers of any sexual orientation have put it down.