Summer camp, notwithstanding Bill Murray’s view of it, is supposed to be a quintessentially formative experience, both for the campers and the counselors. How then to deal with a summer camp that begins with the hasty dispatch of the trained counselors and ends with a murder? No, it isn’t Friday the 13th, but a well-drawn, sensitive, and shocking novel by John Dalton.
Three characters dominate the story of Kindermann Forest Summer Camp: owner Schuller Kindermann, camp nurse Harriet Foster, and counselor Wyatt Huddy. Kindermann has been in charge of the slowly-failing camp since its founding, but always at a slight remove from the daily operation. A narrow and judgmental man, his ideal is the manufactured and manageable world of model railroads and paper sculpture. Harriet Foster and her five-year old son James are the only African-Americans in camp. An outsider by virtue of color, age, and professional background, Harriet is the person with perhaps the clearest view overall of the camp’s operations. She does have a serious blind spot–she continually second-guesses her understanding of white people.
Wyatt Huddy, along with most of the other counselors, is a last-minute hire. Born with Apert’s Syndrome, Wyatt hides himself away from people as much as he can. When the camp job comes up, he and his friend/employer, Salvation Army Captain Throckmorton think working with non-judgmental children is the best way to build Wyatt’s self-confidence. So off he goes.
Little does he, or any of the new counselors, know what is in store for them. For the first two weeks of their season, Kindermann Forest hosts the residents of the Missouri state institution for profoundly mentally disabled people. Even before he’s unpacked his few things, Wyatt is given charge of four men whose need for individual attention would try a saint.
Not that these counselors are saints–some are ordinary teenagers, some have serious troubles of their own, and some just don’t think they can deal with the 24-hour responsibility of these campers. But as the summer begins shaking out and everyone adapts to the routine, Kindermann Forest looks like it might just turn out to be, if not idyllic, at least a good place. But trouble lurks, and when it strikes, one character will die, two others will have their ordered lives upended, and Kindermann Forest will be forever changed. The story doesn’t end there, but to say more would be to reveal the most wonderful section of Dalton’s novel – a sequence of sacrifice and redemption that closes the story.
Dalton used a line from a fictitious poet created by JD Salinger in a 1947 novella -
Not a wasteland, but a great inverted forest with all the foliage underground
for his title, and the novel is filled with those reverses of perception. It seems obvious in two principal characters, but his deeper reading of all the characters shows each of them presenting one face to the world and another hidden underground.
Check the WRL catalog for The Inverted Forest
The Inverted Forest will be added as a Gab Bag in Fall 2012, and I’ll update the catalog link then.