The Plot: When Cameron Post’s parents die in a car crash, Cameron is left to be raised by her mother’s sister and father’s mother. On the day her parents died, Cam kissed a girl, her best friend Irene. Part of Cam is relieved that now her parents won’t know, that her secret is safe.
Cam is careful, but when she meets Coley — beautiful, popular Coley — Cam falls hard. Cam’s fears come true when her religious aunt discovers what Cam is hiding and sends her away to be “fixed” at “God’s Promise,” a “Christian School & Center For Healing” that will lead her from “the sin of homosexuality” to holiness.
The Good: The Miseducation of Cameron Post follows Cameron through several years, starting in 1989 with the death of her parents and on through 1993 when Cam has to make a decision about what to do about “God’s Promise.” From twelve to sixteen, Cam grows and matures, trying to find herself, trying to come of age in a time and place where she has little support and those she loves try to “fix” her.
Cam is strong; she may not realize it, and it may not be obvious. She has tough things to deal with: the loss of both her parents, and then coming of age in a time and place where she has to hide. She struggles, yes. She watches film after film in her room, both as a form as escape but also as a way to try to find herself; her film choices include Personal Best. Make no mistake, though: Cam is tough, emotionally. She is a survivor.
Cam is both isolated yet not alone. She is isolated from her grief, and isolated because she has to hide her relationships with girls. She is not isolated, in that she has friends. While Cam cannot be public about her emotions and love, she is not alone. She manages to make connections. There is Irene, with whom she shares her first kiss. There is Lindsey, visiting for the summer from the west coast, who Cam dates and who becomes Cam’s long-distance friend and mentor, a link to a world where people are out and proud and public. Then there is Coley, the girl who Cam falls for, falls hard, who presents a danger to the delicate balance Cam keeps between her private and public lives.
While Lindsey warns Cam against falling in love with a straight girl, whether or not Coley is straight is left up in the air. There are questions unanswered about Coley; the reader only sees her as Cam does, as Cam’s best friend, a smart, beautiful girl with the perfect boyfriend. Cam has other friends; there is also Jamie Lowry, one of the boys from school who is a better friend than Cam may realize. Jamie has figured that Cam likes girls, that Cam looks at Coley with desire.
Secrets can only be kept so long, and eventually Cameron finds herself in “God’s Promise.” The people who run God’s Promise are well intentioned, but you know what they say about good intentions. By “good,” I mean that they are presented with truly believing what they preach and thinking they are doing the “right thing”. The Miseducation of Cameron Post shows how harmful and damaging such “good intentions” can be, without creating any true villains. Yes, Aunt Ruth sends Cam to God’s Promise, and she is not always the most understanding person. But, she is never shown as mean or cruel; and while Cam, caught up in herself, doesn’t get into the details of what happened after her parents’ accident, Ruth quits her job and moves from Florida to Minnesota to be with her niece. Likewise, Cam’s grandmother (loving but unable to deal with Cam’s “problem”), leaves her own apartment and moves in with Cam and Ruth. Cam’s aunt and grandmother (who, remember, are not related to each other) both sacrifice their own lives and homes so that Cam can remain in her home. These two women have put Cam first and show her kindness and compassion. It would be easy to have turned Ruth into a caricature, but she is not.
And the writing! I love the writing. When Cam’s parents die she is sleeping over a friend’s house. She is aware that something has happened, that her friend’s father is about to enter the bedroom. “I think about [Mr. Klause] standing there, waiting, maybe holding his breath, just like me. I think about him on the other side of that door all the time, even now. How I still had parents before that knock, and how I didn’t after.”
It looking at books set in the past, I ask “why.” Is it just a way to avoid dealing with mobile phones and Internet? There was no moment, either for plotting or characterization, where I thought “oh, a mobile phone would have changed this entire arc.” Places like God’s Promise and the reactions of Cam’s friends and family could have easily happened today. Why, then, not have Lindsey provide Cam with playlists instead of mix tapes? Part of me wonders if (despite news articles to the contrary) there was a concern that what happened to Cam could “only” have happened years ago, not now. Then I looked at the author’s website, and saw that Quake Lake and the August 1959 Earthquake that formed it are real. While set in the late 80s and early 90s, the lake and the earthquake are both important to Cam’s story. To make that work (and it works very well), Cam’s story couldn’t be set in the present.