A Western Education 

New novelist Emily Danforth aces coming of age in Miles City

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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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