The first shift of my new job as the young adult assistant librarian was the day that we would have added The Miseducation of Cameron Post to the new book shelf, had I not checked it out. I noticed it amongst the stack of new arrivals because of the gorgeous cover of a girl in cowboy boots on a hay bale, which reminded me of a Kansas prairie and a sassy character of my own, even if Cameron lives in Montana. Curtis Sittenfeld, one of my favorite authors, called it “funny, heartbreaking, and beautifully rendered” on the cover, which is everything I look for in a book, so I was excited to read it.
When Cameron Post’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief she’ll never have to tell them that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.
But that relief soon turns to heartbreak, as Cam is forced to move in with her conservative aunt Ruth. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and not making waves, and Cam becomes an expert at this—especially at avoiding any questions about her sexuality.
Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. To Cam’s surprise, she and Coley become best friends—while Cam secretly dreams of something more. Just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, her secret is exposed. Ultrareligious Aunt Ruth takes drastic action to “fix” her niece, bringing Cam face-to-face with the cost of denying her true self—even if she’s not quite sure who that is.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a stunning and unforgettable literary debut about discovering who you are and finding the courage to live life according to your own rules.
And while the standard blurb from Goodreads already intrigued me, I was absolutely smitten with Emily’s own notes on the novel’s aboutness, in the spirit of Flannery O’Conner, who said the only way to tell what a book is about is to read it.
Dead parents. Random acts of shoplifting. Girls kissing girls in barns, in twisty slides on playgrounds, in abandoned hospitals. A Victorian dollhouse with all kinds of weird shit glued to it. The compulsive renting and watching of 99cent videos. Miles City, Montana. The 1990s. Swimming. Summer. Cowgirls. Dinosaur discovering. Ferris Wheels. Conversion therapy. Taco Johns. A girl named Jane Fonda and the hollowed compartment in her prosthetic leg. The way a mountain-toppling earthquake that happened some thirty years before keeps aftershocking our hero: Cameron Post. Yup: it’s coming of age, it’s coming of GAYge, it’s a Bildungsroman, a novel of development, it’s all of these things, none of these things, and it would be kick-ass if you gave it a whirl.
I was so excited to read this book, in fact, that I couldn’t undertake it at once. I was almost afraid that I’d put too much pressure on it, that it was somehow unfair to expect so much from any one story. So I admired it on my nightstand for several weeks before deciding I couldn’t wait any longer and pulled it out on a sunny April day when the experience of reading it wouldn’t be tied up so inextricably with my new job and me admitting I was really going to try and write my own novels.
Cameron Post seduced me from page one, effortlessly, without intending to do so. She captured my heart with her subtle sarcasm and her unwitting fierceness. But it isn’t only Cameron I fell in love with—emily danforth constructed each of the characters in the book with such care and insight that I felt they were all equally genuine, so real I felt them as part of my life instead of feeling as if I was only a tourist in their world.
Though it would have been easy to reduce many of the characters to caricatures, Emily Danforth gives them such depth and complexity they defy stereotypes. Coley is more than the beautiful princess of the rodeo; Jamie isn’t simply the bad boy bad influence best friend. My two favorites, Jane and Adam, are certainly more than stock gay kids you’d meet at a place called Promise. Jane’s Polaroids and artificial leg aren’t the only things that I remember about her; more than anything I take away her unpretentious wisdom. What could be more true than “practicality has nothing to do with sexuality”? Adam could have easily become the token Native, thrown in to be PC, but I loved his quiet beauty and appreciated his views on gender and sexuality.
As troubling as what happens to Cameron is, there is no real villain. As firmly as I believe that it’s wrong to teach young people that the way they feel is a sin, even when we see the damage it can do with the Mark “incident” (as Cameron hates that it is reduced to), I never felt that the book came off as preachy or moralistic. It was a matter-of-fact portrayal of what many do experience, and lets the reader come to her own conclusions.
I appreciate an author who can write frankly and honestly about teenagers experimenting with drugs and sex without condemning it or glorifying it. While this is a mature young adult book and not something that I would recommend to just any teenager that walked into the library, I think it’s fabulous that publishers respect teenagers enough to make books like these available, and it’s a pleasure to read this book as an adult and be able to use an example when people ask, “why do you read young adult literature?”
emily danforth’s prose was delightful to read, so much so that I read it slowly, savoring the description in passages that made it possible to taste the bubble gum and feel the hot summer sun and feel that indescribably joy of watching a string of lights flap against the roof right along with Cameron.
So I am left here with that glorious ache, the pain of finishing a book you never wanted to end, until emily m. danforth publishes a new novel.