"I told myself that I didn’t believe any of that shit, but there it was, repeated to me day after day after day. And when you’re surrounded by a bunch of mostly strangers experiencing the same thing, unable to call home, tethered to routine on ranchland miles away from anybody who might have known you before, might have been able to recognize the real you if you told them you couldn’t remember who she was, it’s not really like being real at all. It’s plastic living. It’s living in a diorama. It’s living the life of one of those prehistoric insects encased in amber: suspended, frozen, dead but not, you don’t know for sure."
I really liked this book, and writing up this review I had to amend my original rating - as is the sign of any good book that makes you think.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post was advertised as a YA novel, and maybe it is one, but I did not read it as such. Cameron is in her early teens when the story begins in 1989. What struck me from the outset of the story is how sensitive the narration was to the time it is set in. There are a lot of references to music and tv programmes of the time but they are not used to club you over the head and make you feel the time period. In fact, when we get to know Cameron and her family, the book very much made me anticipate what their day to day routines would have looked like before the narration tells us about it.
I guess the story resonated with me in that way because the fictional Cameron in 1989 is only a couple of years older than me. Like Cameron, I spent my afternoons roaming around with friends whilst my grandparents watched Perry Mason and Matlock. Anyway, this is probably where the similarities end, but to me it illustrates that The Miseducation of Cameron Post is not strictly a YA novel, but also one written for a generation of parents who may have had difficulties to deal with Cameron's generation, and my generation, growing up at that time. I will come back to this point a little later.
It's difficult to discuss the book without giving away much of the story, so if you don't want to read spoilers - stop here.
Cameron is gay and much of the first half of the book deals with the story of a teenager who comes to terms with her sexuality. It also deals with the story of a teenager who has lost her parents and has to come to terms with loss and grief.
As a movie fan Cameron seeks a lot of comfort in films and music.
"But if renting all those movies had taught me anything more than how to lose myself in them, it was that you only actually have perfectly profound little moments like that in real life if you recognize them yourself, do all the fancy shot work and editing in your head, usually in the very seconds that whatever is happening is happening. And even if you do manage to do so, just about never does anyone else you’re with at the time experience that exact same kind of moment, and it’s impossible to explain it as it’s happening , and then the moment is over."
Cameron is a great character. She's snarky, funny, tough, subtle, smart, gentle, and very aware of her surroundings. Cameron is also unafraid to be true to herself and when she falls in love.
"I tried to turn off my lamp and sleep, on top of the covers, my shirt and hair wet, the fan on, the phone lying on the bed next to me, but it was still early and I wasn’t tired. I played one of the new mixes from Lindsey, a bunch of bands and singers I’d not yet heard of, but it felt like too much work to try to really listen to new songs sung by new voices, too much thinking, somehow, so I changed to Tom Petty and felt sorry for myself and then mad at myself for feeling like that and then sorry for myself again."
Of course, her family and community are not comfortable with Cameron's sexuality and when she is found out, her family sends her to God's Promise, a religious institution that specialises in reforming homosexual teenagers.
The second half of the book describes her life at the "reform school", the friends she makes, the hypocrisy of an institution that seems to have fewer objections to recreational drug use than to human nature.
Although God's Promise, the reform school, is not physically mistreating the "disciples" the book clearly describes the incompetence of the staff and the absurdity and incoherence of a religious argument against homosexuality - but the "disciples", having being abandoned by their families and homeless, are powerless.
"I could hear Lindsey in my head telling me to say Really? Well, if homosexuality is just like the sin of murder, then who dies, exactly, when homosexuals get together to sin? But Lindsey wasn’t sitting there with the two of them. And Lindsey wasn’t exiled to Promise for at least a year. So I kept the Lindsey part of me quiet."
Even when events reach their crisis point, Cameron and her friends are left to their own devices. So they make a choice.
"And there was a whole world beyond that shoreline, beyond the forest, beyond the knuckle mountains, beyond, beyond, beyond, not beneath the surface at all, but beyond and waiting."
At first the ending seems like a cop out, like the easy solution to the books problem of the three teenagers escaping from the confines of God's Promise, but then it made me think, too, because one has to think what would become of them. Would they find shelter somewhere? Would they stay together and find a way to start their lives? Or would they be swallowed up like many runaways?
You see this is where I had a change of mind about who the book was written for. Because reading the ending from the perspective of a YA, the ending might seem filled with hope. However, reading as someone who's witnessed friends in similar circumstances at that time or maybe as a parent would, I cannot help but wonder what became of the three, and I cannot help but be concerned for them.
After all, it was not just Tom Petty's Into the Great Wide Open that acts as a soundtrack to the book but I was also reminded of another song that was reflected some of the issues of the time - Runaway Train .