Readers have been talking up a storm about The Miseducation of Cameron Post, emily m. danforth’s debut novel about a lesbian teen and a series of events that brings her on a collision course with hateful social attitudes before she finds her freedom, and her own voice. Once I finally had a chance to read it, I could see why; in many ways, this book reminds me of Rubyfruit Jungle, which was a really formative book for me as a wee queer thing (I couldn’t help but note that danforth namechecked it, actually), though it focuses specifically on the protagonist’s teen years. It does so with a lush, rich narrative that carries a sharp message between all the glorious words.
Orphaned at a young age and forced to live with her grandmother and extremely conservative aunt, Cameron Post struggles with feelings she doesn’t know quite how to define, until the day she kisses a girl—and likes it (sorry, Katy Perry). The usual cast of characters you come to expect in queer coming of age novels is here: the boy in love with the protagonist who wants to support her but struggles with his own feelings; the bi-curious eventual traitor who gives up her friend in a moment of fear about her own identity; the older, wiser, worldly mentor who lectures the protagonist on the right way to be gay; and the circle of friends the protagonist finds when she’s eventually forced to confront her identity.
I expect to see these characters so I’m not surprised that they’re there, but danforth handled them well, and the text managed to include a smidge of metacommentary about those characters and why we expect them even as we observed their interactions with the protagonist. These characters and the people around them, like Coley’s brothers, are an important part of Cameron’s formative experiences, and they mirror the experiences of some queer youth as well, making it easier to find something of themselves in this novel. And when Cameron is inevitably sent to an anti-gay ‘school’ that’s supposed to ‘fix’ her by her aunt (using money her parents set aside in her college fund, no less), the tale starts to become even more complicated.
Because this is not just a novel about being gay in a small and conservative town where being gay is a dangerous thing. It’s also a novel about the extremes people will take to uphold their attitudes about sexuality and identity, and how far people will go to eradicate what they view as a ‘sin’ or ‘stain’ on their family. Cameron’s sent to a conservative Christian facility to be straightened out, and there she meets a new cast of characters who are also familiar from these kinds of books: the genuine good girl trying to get right; the tormented son of a high-profile evangelist; the defiant gay boy; the sly artist, but danforth drilled into their characters and gave them flesh and form, rather than using stereotypes to prop up the narrative.
There are some shocking and very troubling scenes at the school, a reminder that these schools actually exist and the things that happen in them are just as bad, if not worse, than what Cameron and her classmates experience. It’s tragic to see her stuffed into an environment that focuses on making people study the Bible and meet with ‘counselors’ to the exclusion of actual schoolwork, effectively sabotaging chances of going to a good college or making a good career, and the results of that oppressive, hateful environment wreak havoc on the students in a variety of ways.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post depicts a world in which so many things go terribly wrong, and could have gone much worse, except that the character managed to find support in places where she didn’t expect it. These, of course, are not things that all queer youth have access to, and this is something that people should be talking about.
Going to an anti-gay reform camp turns out, in a way, to be a good thing for her, because it solidifies her identity rather than dismantling it, and she has an opportunity to meet people who help her realise who she is. I don’t want to go spoiling the ending for you if you haven’t read it, but ultimately, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is about seizing freedom from social attitudes and making your own way, even when the world is hostile to your very identity.
She’s a likable character, as well, and this novel is a cut above many issue books; it’s well-written, beautifully crafted, and elegantly styled. danforth clearly loves wading in words and wielding them to her satisfaction and it shows on every page of this carefully structured and brilliantly told story. It’s a book worth reading for its simple beauty, not just the story. This is a literary novel, not just a trite issue book, and it’s the kind of setting, narrative, and storytelling that should appeal to readers of a variety of ages; if you read Rubyfruit Jungle, you’re going to like The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and I’m excited to have a new critical queer coming of age novel for a new generation.