Summer camp! The phrase calls up images of freedom and play: diversions and discoveries, secrets whispered in humid tents, children roaming the woods without getting lost for too long. For the young adults who answered an emergency call for new counselors at a Missouri summer camp in The Inverted Forest, summer camp promised a break from their constricting hometown lives. The counselors, too, were seeking freedom and self-discovery. They found something much sadder.

The Inverted Forest is a novel about, among other things, the limits of human authority. John Dalton portrays a world in which humiliation is inevitable, responsibility is burdensome, and most of life is about obeying orders or going too far beyond them. The phrase “did as she was told” and its cousins are used again and again throughout the novel. And while the novel turns, in part, on the question of who can stand as a responsible adult, it should be noted that there’s only one child at this camp. Kindermann Forest Summer Camp begins the season with a two-week session of adult campers from the state hospital system: adults with severe developmental disorders such as mental retardation, along with a host of other ailments.

Before they arrive, the summer of 1996 starts with a jolt when camp owner Schuller Kindermann hears a noise in the woods and ventures out to find almost all of his counselors frolicking naked in the pool. Kindermann, a repressive Christian who can’t really understand any form of passion, goes against the wishes of his staff and fires everyone who was involved in the incident—with one exception. The nurse, Harriet, is allowed to remain, along with her young son. Everyone else is replaced by a new crop of secondhand counselors, people who were rejected the first time around or were found by a hasty and ramshackle search.

The first chapter, which details the pool party and its immediate aftermath, reads like a perfect short story. The elderly, authoritarian Kindermann confronts young counselors who seem callow and fairly self-involved, unable to understand why anyone might object to crude sexual games and mixed-sex skinny-dipping. Both sides come away from this confrontation feeling thwarted and defeated, unable to understand one another, or even themselves.

However, it’s the later consequences of the mass firing which set off the events of the novel. Among the new counselors is Wyatt Huddy, a man with a genetic condition causing facial distortion, which makes many people assume that he is retarded himself. While he must explain to the other “normal” adults that he’s a counselor, and not a camper, the campers themselves never mistake him for one of their own. He, like Harriet, is a marginal, in-between figure—and it’s through their eyes that we see the campers and the counselors, the adults who are supposed to follow the rules and the adults who are supposed to enforce them.

Sometimes the story is told from the point of view of Kindermann, the adult who makes the rules, which helps make him more than a caricatured tyrant, although he is too sour to evoke deep sympathy. He thinks of himself as having “a benign absence” of passion, but what he lacks is really need or longing, and that lack is not actually benign. It makes him simultaneously too strict and too hands-off, uninvolved in the daily crises of the camp and therefore unable to foresee or ward off the major catastrophe which occurs at the very end of the state hospital session.

There are some lovely moments in the writing: “a cold and molted gray morning,” “the bloated sunlight in the cottage windows.” And there are many quick, conversational sentences highlighting the submissive, sometimes abject, obedience of many of the characters. One camper has “the least imposing gaze Harriet had ever seen.” Another looks “like a man accustomed to disappointment, a refugee turned away at every border.” Wyatt himself gets this telling moment, a mix of self-assertion and submission: “ ‘I’m a counselor,’ he explained meekly.”

Responsibility weighs heavily on Harriet, who finds herself physically incapable of being constantly “on duty” as both sole nurse and single mother. She finds herself in those exhausted 3 a.m. moments in which one’s life feels less like a vocation, still less like a choice, and more like a trap in which you just woke up. She reflects, “What a peculiar occupation, nursing, the way it veered back and forth between the honorable and the ridiculous.” Both she and Wyatt wonder if they have been given more responsibility—more control over others, and more duty to exercise that control gently and well—than they can bear.

Others among the staff don’t ask themselves those questions. Some of the counselors are just trying to get by, doing the grueling day-to-day work of dealing with the campers. (The work is humiliating: One counselor is constantly insulted by a camper, an old man who calls him “a stinking puddle of piss.” This phrase is picked up as a joke by all the other counselors, even though it causes him genuine distress. The counselors have to provide “the sort of help that left you stinking, scratched, and shaken.”) Some of them may be even worse. There’s a cajoling, weaseling side of youth, and some of the staffers begin to suspect that one of the counselors may be angling to abuse his position.

The final disaster occurs in a tangle of compliance and disobedience: the counselor who breaks the rules, the camper who does as she’s told, Harriet’s instructions to Wyatt as she tries to prevent a tragedy, and his overreaching response to those instructions. The Inverted Forest portrays a world in which authority is both necessary and absent. There is no sure source of guidance. The young counselors lack the experience needed for moral judgment while Kindermann lacks both the generosity and the insight into human motivations which he desperately needs to exercise leadership responsibly.

Harriet and Wyatt—and the campers, helpless, doing as they’re told—are caught in the middle. They try to take on just enough responsibility and evade the worst of the burden. But by the end they, like everyone in a summer-camp novel, have been forced to grow up.

Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington.

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