A Western Education 

New novelist Emily Danforth aces coming of age in Miles City

The first thing that happens in Emily Danforth's The Miseducation of Cameron Post is that Cameron, age 12, kisses a girl. The second: her parents die in a car wreck. Danforth's new novel is a stunning tale of a girl growing up gay, in Miles City. If there's a tradition of western writing—and in Montana we've got a long list of practitioners spanning decades, including James Lee Burke, Jim Crumley, A.B. Guthrie, Judy Blunt and Mary Clearman Blew—here is its fresh face.

The landscape is Montana, the story is bittersweet. Cameron's good at fitting in, at hiding her feelings. She forges friendships with boys and together they sneak into the abandoned Holy Rosary Hospital with peppermint schnapps. She tucks stolen candy into the waistband of her shorts, roaming the neighborhood with her friend Irene, whom she eventually kisses. The shock of Cameron's parents' death is compounded by the guilt she harbors. She's relieved that her parents can't ever know she's kissed a girl, but is their death punishment for her kiss? Soon Coley Taylor moves to town, a real cowgirl type with a boyfriend. Cameron's infatuation with Coley leads to an intense relationship that seems hopeful until her ultra-religious Aunt Ruth decides Cameron's gayness needs to be fixed. That turning point leads her to unexpected places, including back to Quake Lake, near Yellowstone National Park, where her parents were killed.

Like Cameron, Danforth grew up in Miles City. She got her MFA from the University of Montana's creative writing program in 2006 and wrote The Miseducation of Cameron Post while getting a PhD in creative writing at the University of Nebraska. The book was published this February, and Danforth will be returning to Missoula for the first time in six years to attend the Humanities Montana Festival of the Book in early October. We spoke with her in anticipation of her visit. She's a little bit like her character—funny and kind and full of energy. Still, her book is fiction, not memoir, which pays great dividends.

It's a comical, sad and richly rendered coming-of-age tale that rejects sentimentalism and embraces the nuances of her characters. It has some of the same endless summer feeling of the film Stand By Me. Danforth captures the excitement and crushing blows bound up with firsts—first love, first heartbreak. She's also captured something essential about the modern West. Her landscape is full of pine-scented winds, hay fields and the fairs and rodeos of eastern Montana, but she's reframed it with other events: the 1990s Seattle grunge scene, a personal tale about the Quake Lake natural disaster and the tough reality of being gay in a place, at a time, where difference isn't always understood.

Atop the ferris wheel

The sharpest scene in The Miseducation of Cameron Post—when we know we're rooted in Danforth's Montana—comes early on, when the author describes the Custer County Fair. The kiss she shared with Irene has made their relationship awkward, but they still go to the fair together. Danforth uses deep detail to make the moment come alive. Cameron and Irene don't just eat snow cones, they eat "graveyard snow cones," a gray mixture of lime, orange, grape and cherry flavors. The lemonade stand buzzes with wasps. They eat pacos from the Crystal Pistol booth, "seasoned beef in a cocoon of hot fry bread, the orange grease squirting and burning the insides of our cheeks."

Such regional particulars, she says, led to some editing confusion. "I can't tell you how many rounds of copy edits we went through with the word 'paco.'" Every time, she says, the fair scene would come back with the word "paco" replaced by "taco." She laughs. "Even when I would say 'This is correct, leave this,' it would come back and the copy editor would have changed it to 'taco,' like I was a moron, right? Like I didn't know what I was talking about. And finally I think I wrote something kind of snarky in the margins. The copy editor for the book was great, but it amused me. I hadn't realized it was such a regional thing that it would be seen as a mistake."

After eating pacos, the girls go on the Ferris wheel, and it's acknowledged how strange that is: kids that age deem the Ferris wheel boring. But Irene and Cameron have other things on their minds. Here's where we get even more of the flavor of the West. This isn't a fair in just any old town. This feels like eastern Montana:

"We were lifted up into the hot embrace of the ever-blackening Montana sky, the lights from the midway sluicing us in their fluorescent glow, a tinny kind of ragtime music plinking out from somewhere deep in the center of the wheel. Up on top we could see the whole of the fair: the tractor pull, the dance pavilion, cowboys in Wranglers leaning cowgirls built like sticks of gum up against pickups out in the parking lot. Up on top the air smelled less like grease and sugar, more like just-baled hay and the muddy waters of the Yellowstone as it lazed its way around the fairgrounds."

Danforth says she didn't think a lot about Western literature until arriving in Missoula for grad school. In some ways the literature of the West is difficult to pinpoint, unlike, say, the deeply established canon of the South in the works of writers such as Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor. But when Danforth got to UM, she says, that changed.

"I remember getting there the first semester and it seemed like everyone—and I'm sure that's not the case, but it really seemed like everyone—was talking about Rick Bass's collection The Watch. And so I went and got it," at the Book Exchange. "They had a whole Rick Bass section. I got the stories and I marveled at them."

There are amazing stories in The Watch, of men who drink and live too fast and love the wildness of the land. Richard Ford, and Norman Maclean with A River Runs Through It, have created such tales of river and fire, of wild creatures and blue-collar lives.

The western landscape in The Miseducation of Cameron Post isn't focused on just one landmark, but in all Danforth's details we know exactly where we are. Even the images of big sky and mountains that are so recognizably "The West" that they feel beaten to death Danforth has repackaged in refreshing ways. The streams might be "aching with trout," as she mentions in one scene, but there's also a "so-blue-it-looked-fake mountain lake," which seems to acknowledge the way one often feels about nature in the modern world.

Danforth, modestly and with a writer's prerogative to not self-analyze, doesn't feel comfortable saying how she thinks Cameron Post fits into Western literature, but she does have observations that she played with in the book, for instance, how locals like to say there are two seasons in Montana: winter and road construction. Or that if you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes.

"I think everyone says that everywhere," Danforth says. "But there is something about the amount of jobs that are tied to the land in Montana, or the remoteness of towns. The land is just present in a way that it's not in other places that I've lived, and I feel like it shapes your experience living there. It sounds so dorky to say, but it really is different. And people who visit notice that. They do. It's the quality of light and the way the light filters through the mountains in the downtown area of Missoula. It just colors your life."

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