The 1990s rural Montana setting of Emily Danforth's debut, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, is home to an expected community of characters. Kids goof off and get high in the woods, and conservative adults promote old-fashioned school dances and God's Promise, an LGBT "treatment" facility where "the opposite of homosexuality isn't heterosexuality. It is Holiness."
But Miseducation is not about protagonist Cam's clichéd struggle with being queer—or at least not entirely. Danforth inspects the raw parts of acceptance, healing, and moving forward. Cam doesn't just answer the questions "Am I gay?" and "Who the fuck am I?" As the book opens, she must deal with her parents' bizarre death (after avoiding a near-fatal experience at a Montana campground, Cam's folks have gone back every year to celebrate life—until a freak accident kills them in the exact same location; think Final Destination 2.) Following the tragic demise of both Mom and Dad, Cam endures a series of frustrating friendships (some of which would definitely be described on Facebook as "It's complicated"). She dives into sports to keep her mind away from death and sex. Unlike Megan Bloomfield in But I'm a Cheerleader, however, Cam is a girl who walks out on arguments she doesn't like and turns to every VHS tape she can find for life advice, for "something official to show [her] how all of this should feel." She learns sexiness from Pretty Woman; she learns quick wit from Thelma & Louise.
The lack of momentum in Miseducation's final section is the only disappointing factor. Within the first two pages, Cam discovers she is gay and her parents are dead, and she speeds through the next two-thirds of the book, constantly on the run from adults and her emotional problems. But then she arrives at God's Promise, and the plot slows way down. After so many bustling passages introducing new locations, characters, and heightened drama, Cam's story at Promise feels static and anticlimactic, like the aftermath of one of her swim meets.
In Cam's head, Danforth has written the perfect young-adult stream of consciousness. Her descriptions are teenage-awkward and feel organic and uncensored:
Grandma stooped over with a yellow rag, sprinkling out the cleanser, that chemical-mint smell puffing around us, her son dead and her daughter-in-law dead and her only grandchild a now-orphaned shoplifter, a girl who kissed girls, and she didn't even know, and now she was cleaning up my vomit, feeling even worse because of me: That's what made me cry.
In a surprising way, Cam avoids religion- bashing, although she employs humor selectively to get her point across. Yes, "curing gayness" is absolutely bogus, but she can eventually relate any Bible-thumper's faith to the peace she feels from a mountain jog. It's a peace that resonates through the book's final pages.