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."

Praying away the gay

In the summer of 2005, Zack Stark made a startling post on his MySpace page, one that would also affect Danforth's novel in big ways.

It was the summer between Danforth's first and second years of graduate school at UM, and she'd gone home to Miles City to live with her parents. It felt strange, she recalls. She'd already left the nest, gone to undergraduate school and stopped coming home in the summers. She'd worked in New York and Connecticut. Miles City was in the past—except for the fact that she'd been writing about it lately.

"I think I did it for premature nostalgia for my youth," she says, laughing. "But I did it too because I thought that I could mine that experience for this material that informed the book. And that's when I heard the story of Zack Stark."

At the time, Stark was a 16-year-old boy from Tennessee who had just come out to his parents. They cried and sent him to a live-in ex-gay program called "Love in Action," sponsored by the organization Exodus International, in Memphis. He talked about it on his MySpace page. He also found his parents' copy of the Exodus youth rules and posted them.

Danforth had the reaction that perhaps many of us do, which is, "This kind of thing still happens? In this day and age?" She's seen But I'm a Cheerleader, a satire of "pray away the gay" programs. In that film, a teenage cheerleader is just living her life normally until everyone else starts pointing out their suspicions: She's not into making out with her boyfriend. Her locker is full of pictures of women in sports bras. They tell her she's a lesbian; she's surprised. And then she's sent away to a camp run by a coach (an ex-gay) who wears a shirt that says: "Straight is great!" The film is funny, the perfect tongue-in cheek farce that ends up being poignant and delightfully scathing in the way it portrays the absurdity of conversion therapy.

In Stark's case, the reality seemed just as absurd as the fictional film. "The clients may not wear Abercrombie and Fitch or Calvin Klein brand clothing, undergarments or accessories," was one of the rules at Love in Action. "Obviously, Calvin Klein is inherently gay," Danforth says, laughing. But the other thing that stuck with Danforth was Stark's complicated reaction. "What was so compelling for me about Zach's story is that he would sometimes, on his posts, refer to himself as gay and other times he wouldn't," she says.

He didn't know how to stand up for who he was because he didn't know who he was. He was having trouble reconciling his Christianity with his attractions. He didn't want to disappoint his parents and he didn't want to be sent away.

"That was interesting to me, to have it not be as black-and-white as I thought," Danforth says. "Because of course [conversion therapy is] torturous and absurd and harmful, but there's this other side of the story. So I came back the second year of school armed with that. I talked to people about how I know now this novel is going to feature conversion therapy in some prominent way and I continued to do research that year."

Almost half of Cameron Post ends up taking place at a "pray away the gay" camp. Unlike Stark, Cameron isn't quite as conflicted about the camp—she's not really buying into it even if she does have feelings of guilt. Ridiculous things happen, including a scene where the campers have to write about all the things that made them gay, such as too many sports for girls. Yet the camp is full of complex characters. Probably the most interesting is Reverend Rick, an ex-gay who co-runs the program with his icy aunt. Rick is a jovial guy who plays guitar and seems to care about the kids. In one scene, he has a breakthrough with Cameron in which they end up singing along to a Christian mixtape featuring the gospel song "Oh Happy Day," using a potato peeler for a pretend microphone, while making a Thanksgiving meal. It's a sweet moment—the first time in several pages that Cameron seems happy, not happy about her situation, but happy in the moment.

"Everybody in the kitchen was clapping along with the choir on the tape and watching us. I took the potato peeler from Adam, gripped it in my best Mahalia impersonation, and closed my eyes, fuck it, belted like a pro. We finished out the song like that, increasingly louder, recklessly, goofy as all get-out. My excuse was the marijuana, but Rick didn't have one other than being Rick."

The song ends, a sappy song comes on and the stern camp matron, Lydia, walks through the door. The moment is over. Danforth's rendering is deft. Like Cameron, you enjoy the moment and then you feel like you've betrayed your convictions. This camp is bad for everyone. But there was this nice time had in the kitchen, and you feel guilty for liking Rick.

The truth is, especially in the 1970s, there are truly horrifying conversion therapy stories involving obvious brainwashing and abuse. That's a route Danforth could have easily taken to excite the sympathies of her readers but it's also kind of the easy way out, like giving your character cancer as a way to evoke pity.

"I had people say to me, you know, why didn't you have them doing shock treatment," says Danforth. "Why don't you have some nasty aversion therapy where they would force the kids to watch gay porn and then they would douse them with unpleasant scents or whatever. And there are those horror stories, one can find those fairly readily. But those are the exceptions and I was much more interested...in not going there."

Hello from the riot grrrls

In the early 1990s, Nirvana's Nevermind hit number one on the charts and a storm of riot grrrls took over the independent airwaves. For most rural Montana literature, this might seem irrelevant, except that if you were growing up as an "alternative" teenager during these times, this new music would have been the soundtrack to your life. Danforth recognizes this change in the western scenery. Cameron Post has a friend in Seattle who sends her mixtapes buzzing with the sounds of Bikini Kill and giving her a taste of a rising movement that embraced lesbianism. And in that way, the book gives us a glimpse of the parallel world outside Miles City in the 1990s.

"I really think of this novel as a historical novel," Danforth says. "People who write historical fiction set in the 1700s give me this baffling look. But the experience of being an adolescent in 1992 in Miles City, Montana is not at all the experience of being an adolescent in 2012 in Miles City, Montana."

The riot grrl grunge keyhole isn't just a superfluous detail to ground the novel in its time. It also serves as way to highlight just how isolated Cameron is.

"Cam has no access to the internet," Danforth points out, "and for a girl who likes girls, trying to find a community—and the internet is certainly not a perfect way to do that, but it is a way to find teens who are talking about the same things you are—is not an option for her at that time. She's so desperate just to find representation of queer culture that, yeah, those mixtapes become crucial. And it's not just queer culture, but any kind of culture that she is not immediately surrounded by."

Cameron rents videotapes of movies that show how she thinks people act in the world. She looks for representations of women having relationships with other women. And because they're videotapes, not Netflix streams, they make her more vulnerable. It's "the idea of having to go and rent these things and then in a small town everybody knows what you rented," Danforth says.

Return to the lake

There's a story about how raven brings light to the universe by stealing it. It's one of thousands of aboriginal stories of the land, etiological tales of the way things came to be. Besides being historical fiction and a story of the West, The Miseducation of Cameron Post ends up being a story of the land. It starts out as a falsehood: Cameron is sure that the story of her parents' death begins with the kiss she shared with Irene. Not only that, but her parents' car accident happens near Quake Lake, which, we're told, is where Cameron's mother escaped death as a child when the 1959 earthquake occurred. Cameron is certain of God's hand in this irony: Her mother escaped only to suffer the consequences of the sins of her own daughter.

Quake Lake is a poignant place. The earthquake created a landslide whose 100-mile-per-hour force hit a campground and killed 28 people in the middle of the night. There's a plaque commemorating the loss, but the eeriest part is the lake, which still has a highway running through it, plus houses, their tops peeking from the surface.

Danforth's mother, who is alive and well, did barely escape the earthquake. "It really is my mother's story," she says, "not every detail of it, but they were in fact at Quake Lake the day that night happened." Her mother always told her this story: If Danforth's grandfather had put his fishing pole in the lake, they never would have left. But they got a tip that there was an all-you-can-eat buffet in Virginia City and packed and departed. "I remember hearing this story and getting goosebumps," says Danforth. "So before I'd ever been to Quake Lake, there was that story. It's true for so many things that at any moment we can be a second away from an event. This ties to the landscape of the book: the natural disaster that changes everything. And those small misses."

In Cameron Post, Quake Lake shows up several times and each time it gains new weight. "You introduce something and the reader doesn't know what to expect," Danforth explains, "and then you introduce it again and because of everything that happened in between, it takes on new meaning. And by the end, when it turns up again, it should work as a symphony. It's an echo that changes and develops what the novel means."

There's no point in giving the story away, but it won't ruin anything to say that Cameron ends up at Quake Lake to try and recast her story of guilt into one of reconciliation and rebirth amongst the debris of that place:

"There wouldn't be any adjusting to this lake on this night...I stepped in, one foot after another, and just kept walking, the lake floor rocky in some places, gooey and thick in others. It was like walking on coals, maybe, if the coals and ash grew thicker and thicker with each step...I concentrated on my candle flame, counted to three as I inhaled and again to three as I blew out. And again. And again. My blood pounded in my ears and something like an ice cream headache pulsed along my temples. If I wanted to make it to that skeleton forest, I was going to have to swim."

Truth conforms to music

A good Montana poet, Richard Hugo, once wrote: "When you start to write, you carry to the page one of two attitudes, though you may not be aware of it. One is that all music must conform to truth. The other, that all truth must conform to music. If you believe the first, you are making your job very difficult."

The Miseducation of Cameron Post adheres to that advice. Danforth, though she shares some characteristics and experiences with Cameron, has written her to be a person who follows her own path. "Anybody who knew me in high school or even thereafter would tell you all the many, many, many ways that Cam and I are not at all alike," she says. "One of the most obvious you can start with is, I'm not an orphan; you could start there with listing them and it would go for hundreds and hundreds of pages. But I think a lot of those details of sense of place and experiencing wonderment [are true]I remember one of the things that was so delicious about growing up in Miles City when I did was the fair and those kinds of events and that kind of experience of culture. You know, it was a pretty great place to be a teenager."

A few months ago, Danforth returned to Miles City for a reading. She wasn't sure what to expect. She knew there had been a religious protest at the Miles City library during a presentation on Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. And here was her book, a young-adult novel about being gay in Miles City, and there's drinking and sex and swearing in it. She's heard that some people in Miles City disapproved; whether it was because of the gay aspect or that they felt these subjects were too racy for teens, she's not sure. Yet she's rendered all those scenes with grace and sweetness. And the way she treats Miles City, even as Cameron goes through rough times, is deeply affectionate.

"It was strange for me," she says. "It's this strange thing, like, you can't go home again, and yet here I was going home with this book and I'm reading at the library where I once got my library card cut in half because I had so many overdue fines. And who's going to show up, and will they be angry?"

She needn't have worried.

"In fact, it was wonderful," she says. "It was also a much older crowd than I'd expected—I'd say half the crowd was 60 and older. And there were smart questions. I don't know that everyone in the audience loved the book or loved everything in it, but I think they were just happy for me and happy about the things in the book about Miles City that they can kind of respond to. It's been overwhelmingly positive."

They knew the knock was coming

It was as perfect a summer night as the one before it. We watched the stars from our place in the barn loft. We blew stolen pink bubbles bigger than our heads. We kissed again. Irene leaned toward me and I knew exactly what she was doing, and we didn't even have to talk about it. Irene silently daring me to keep going every time I came up for air. I wanted to. The last time it had been just our mouths. This time we remembered that we had hands, though neither of us were sure what to do with them. We came inside for the night, drunk on our day together, our secrets. We were still telling those secrets when we heard Irene's parents in the kitchen, maybe ten minutes after the phone rang. Mrs. Klauson was crying, her husband saying something over and over in a calm, steady voice. I couldn't quite catch it.

"Shhhh," Irene told me, even though I wasn't making noise beyond the rustle of the covers. "I can't tell what's going on."

And then from the kitchen, Mrs. Klauson, her voice like I'd never heard it, like it was broken, like it wasn't even hers. I couldn't hear enough to make any sense. Something about taking her in the morning. Telling her then.

There were heavy footsteps in the hallway, Mr. Klauson's boots. This time we both heard him perfectly, his soft reply to his wife. "Her grandmother wants me to bring her home. It's not up to us, honey."

"It's something really bad," Irene said to me, her voice not even quite a whisper.

I didn't know what to say back. I didn't say anything.

We both knew the knock was coming. We heard the footsteps stop outside Irene's door, but there was empty time between the end of those steps and the heavy rap of his knuckles: ghost-time. Mr. Klauson 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. Mr. Klauson knew that too; how he had to lift his calloused hand and take them away from me at 11 p.m. one hot night at the end of Junesummer vacation, root beer and stolen bubble gum, stolen kisses—the very good life for a 12-year-old, when I still had mostly everything figured out, and the stuff I didn't know seemed like it would come easy enough if I could just wait for it, and anyway there'd always be Irene with me, waiting too.

From the novel The Miseducation of Cameron Post, by Emily Danforth

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