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A learned miseducation.

December 29, 2013

Several weeks ago, in between serving angry Christmas shoppers and trying to jam more books onto our already packed shelves, a couple of my bookselling colleagues and I tried to come up with YA novels featuring strong and positive gay protagonists. It was surprisingly (and depressingly) difficult—off the top of our heads, the only one we could come up with was James Sveck in Peter Cameron’s excellent 2008 novel, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You

More recently, YA books featuring gay teenagers have become more prevalent—I’ve heard great things about David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing, released earlier this year, and AS King’s Ask the Passengers was warmly received back in 2012. Still, for any gay or unsure teenagers seeking a fictional world that reflects their own experience or can perhaps offer answers and support that are proving elusive in real life, there doesn’t seem to be a huge selection of titles from which to choose. There also remains, sadly, a stigma attached to this type of literature—apparently, some school libraries here in Australia aren’t carrying Two Boys Kissing, and we even had a bookshop customer ask a bookseller last week if ‘you have to be gay to read that book’. This prompted another bookseller to ponder whether you had to be a wombat to read The Muddleheaded Wombat; answers on a postcard. A gay postcard.

No matter which way you swing, or your feelings about wombats, there’s plenty to enjoy in Emily M Danforth’s wonderful and important debut novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which portrays a teenage girl’s discovery of her sexuality with wit, honesty, and empathy. It’s also set in the early 90s; regardless of the fact that the 90s were probably the best decade of all time, it’s confronting to realise how different things were for the gay community just 20 years ago, and the novel’s time and place (Miles City, Montana) give its protagonist’s situation a poignant edge. Miles City (or Miles Shitty, as it’s known by some of its teenage residents) is a small town best known for its annual Bucking Horse Sale—four days of ‘street dances, tractor pulls, and authentic cowboy shenanigans’—rather than the progressive attitudes of its residents.

When the book opens, Cameron Post is 12 years old, and she’s just kissed her best friend Irene. Hours later, both of Cam’s parents are killed in a car crash, and she’s convinced that her actions have somehow caused their death. Two years later, she’s living with her grandma and well-meaning but conservative Aunt Ruth, and it’s pretty clear to Cam that she prefers girls. Things start to get complicated when she befriends the beautiful Coley Taylor, a cowgirl who ‘drove the forty-some miles into town from her family’s ranch every morning’ and ‘picked the table dead in the front of the room’ in biology class so she could ask ‘intelligent questions about dissection methods’; a smitten Cam spends the semester dreamily watching the highlights fade from Coley’s hair.

The two girls quickly become good friends, but things take an awkward and painful turn when Cam’s feelings grow increasingly hard to hide. When the inevitable happens and her Aunt Ruth discovers the truth about her niece’s sexuality, she takes the drastic step of sending Cam to God’s Promise, an ominous-sounding camp that aims to ‘cure’ gay teenagers (Danforth’s plot was apparently influenced by a real case).

While the idea of attending a camp designed to ‘fix’ your sexuality might sound nightmarishly Orwellian, Cam’s narration is so finely nuanced, negotiating that complex terrain between adolescent anguish and droll observation, that her experience is as entertaining as it is horrifying. The camp leaders’ efforts to ‘help’ their charges include making them fill out iceberg diagrams (the tip of the iceberg represents ‘Same Sex Attraction Disorder’; what lurk beneath are all the experiences that could have caused such a terrible aberration). ‘Are you gonna try and melt away my tip?’ Cam asks dubiously. She and her fellow ‘disciples’, as they’re known, survive by ‘faking progress in one-on-ones, amicable interactions with staff, and burning off steam through a series of sinful, thereby forbidden, thereby secret interactions with each other’.

As months of church services and iceberg counselling drag by, what Cam eventually gains from her experience at God’s Promise is not, of course, any kind of ‘cure’ for a non-existent affliction, but a more developed understanding of her true identity and a growing sense of self-worth. The friendships she makes at the camp—particularly with Jane, who hides her pot stash inside her plastic prosthetic leg, and Adam, whose skin was ‘the color of coppered jute’ and whose father felt that his career ambitions were threatened ‘by having a fairy for a son’—gradually help her accept the tragedies of her past (the loss of her parents, the messy end of her friendship with Coley). They also make for wonderful reading: Danforth writes with such humour and honesty, and draws such well-realised and sympathetic characters, that the novel flows despite its slow pacing and hefty length (almost 500 pages).

Miseducation is an undeniably necessary book, and not just because of the sensitive and realistic manner in which it handles a timely issue: the continued mistreatment of people based on their sexual orientation. Without proselytising or patronising, it offers sage lessons in the challenging art of knowing ourselves and respecting others’ choices—two concepts that continue, unfortunately, to prove much harder in practice than in theory.

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