Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Sometimes the right kind of sad can help, even when you yourself are sad. I kept seeing this one bandied about on Twitter, and it turns out my library has a copy, so I was able to get to it sooner rather than later. I’m glad I did. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a bittersweet book, definitely a coming-of-age story, about the eponymous character’s struggle with being a lesbian in a rural, conservative Christian town in Montana. Emily M. Danforth, born and raised in the same city in which this book is set, perfectly captures the atmosphere of this town, as well as nailing the voice of an awkward teenager’s rich internal life. This book is a smoothly calibrated ride with all the feels.
The core of this novel is how Cameron manages her relationships with people as she navigates her queer identity. Danforth exemplifies how “coming out” is not a one-time process. Cameron is out to some people and not others, sometimes not of her own volition. And in some cases the line is blurred, or there is denial involved. In Miles City, “lesbian” is a dirty word, and when Cameron’s straight-girl-crush outs her to everyone, that’s when the novel finally kicks into high gear as Cameron’s aunt sends her to the conversion therapy camp to “pray away the gay”, if you will.
That’s not to say that the first half of the novel is boring or unnecessary. On the contrary, I love the portrait Danforth presents here. In the very beginning, Cameron associates her first explorations of queerness with a friend with her parents’ untimely deaths, internalizing a guilt that hangs over her queer identity for her entire adolescence. As she grows up in Aunt Ruth’s household, she clings to the things that provide her with the most comfort: the movies she rents, her interactions with Lindsey in person and by letter, and later, her time with Coley. In every case, we watch Cameron struggle to reconcile her attraction to other women with the messaging she receives from nearly every adult, and many of her peers, in her life: this is bad; this is a sin; no one should want to be this way.
Whether or not you’ve ever felt that kind of hellfire-fuelled admonishment turned upon you, I don’t see how it’s possible not to sympathize with what Cameron goes through. Well before she was sent off to conversion therapy, my stomach was in knots. No one deserves to endure that. We make a lot of noise about wanting to protect children, but sometimes what we do “for their own good” ends up being even more harmful. And that’s one of the most prominent aspects of this book: there are no moustache-twisting villains here. Yes, the overt and covert homomisia is strong in this, of course. Yet everyone who speaks out against Cameron’s identity, everyone who tries to get her to convert to being straight, is convinced they are acting out of love for her. From Ruth to Pastor Rick, and even Lydia, everyone thinks they are doing good. There is no violent abuse here, no electroshock therapy or starvation. Yet that doesn’t make it excusable, because the emotional abuse is still there. As Cameron puts it to the school inspector who interviews her:
“Do you feel that you’ve been emotionally abused by the staff here?”
“Oh my God,” I said, throwing my hands in the air, feeling every bit as dramatic as I was acting. “I just told you all about it—the whole fucking purpose of this place is to make us hat ourselves so that we change. We’re supposed to hate who we are, despise it.”
I’m not here to rail against conversion therapy (I suspect that if you’re reading this review, or this book, you’re already against it, and if you aren’t, this isn’t going to convince you). I’m just trying to show that Danforth does a good job representing how, if you strip away the most overtly egregious parts of some of these conversion therapy camps, the kernel of the process—the very concept—remains abusive and harmful in the extreme. Cameron’s experience is not so much formative as it is torturous, and the moment she, Jane, and Adam set on escape, I fist-pumped and yelled, “Yes, Cameron! Escape! You go!”
I love the ending. I love the ambiguity, not knowing where Cameron goes, what she does next, what happens to her. You will not convince me she will not end up OK, though—because this is not that type of book. This is not a sad book, although it has moments of sadness—nor is this a happy book. It’s just honest. It’s realistic enough to hurt but not so brutal that it will tear you to shreds. Cameron Post escapes, and she lives on, and whether or not she gets a happily-ever-after isn’t the point: she gets to live. She gets to make mistakes, be as queer as she wants, with whomever she wants. That’s what I believe.
“We need more rep!” is a common refrain to hear from queer people and other marginalized groups, and I think The Miseducation of Cameron Post does a good job illustrating why. This is Cameron’s story, and her story alone, yet in the background Danforth provides glimpses of other queer stories. From Lindsey the Seattle-based lesbian to Cameron’s honourary aunt, Margot, to the various other kids with her at the conversion camp, we see the myriad intersections between queer identities, one’s location, and the attitudes of those who raise one. This is why we need more queer stories: because no queer story is everyone’s queer story, and while elements of this book might ring true to most lesbian or queer people, not all of it will for everyone.
I read this book while I was sad—or to be more precise, while I was low, because actually I was very happy but just overwhelmed with my emotions at the time. That meant it took me longer to get through this than I would like. And I was worried Cameron’s plight would be too much. Pleasantly surprised, then, to find out that it was different enough from my issues that I sympathized with her but not to the point of feeling too fragile after reading it. Sometimes, the best thing to do when you’re sad is to find a different kind of sad—because you’re going to feel what you’re going to feel, but maybe you can feel it in a different way.
Finally, I don’t think this is a young adult book in the sense that it will only appeal to young adults and those who enjoy reading YA as a market. I think this is a good novel, which happens to have a young adult protagonist but which adults of all ages can and should read.