The Magazine

Camp as Metaphor

What humans will learn at the edge of civilization.

Apr 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 30 • By EVE TUSHNET
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.