When I was growing up, I fantasized about going to summer camp. Not just a week of day camp like I had always done, but real camp. Sleepover camp. Two or four or eight weeks of being away from home, sleeping in a bunk bed. Daytimes spent swimming in a glittering lake, evenings spent roasting marshmallows over a fire, giggling uncontrollably from the sugar high. I’ve always suspected that it was an idealized fantasy, right up there with the one where childhood me was discovered by a famous agent at a local soda shop and propelled into child stardom. (The first clue that that would never be: We had no soda shop in my neighbourhood.)
The reality is that my camping experience would probably have more closely resembled Mindy Schneider’s, as described in Not a Happy Camper. Lured by images of luscious greenery and luxuriant facilities (not to mention a kosher kitchen), thirteen-year-old Mindy convinces her parents that Camp Kin-A-Hurra is the place for her, rather than the rigid, prissy summer camps of the years before.
Between Mindy’s pleading and a Lyle Lanley-worthy sales pitch, the deal is done. But after the long drive from New Jersey to Maine, the family discovers the camp is something different from what Mindy expected. Unkempt. In disrepair. The luxurious facilities are nowhere to be seen. The activities are minimal and chaotic. Disillusionment is inevitable. But Mindy made this decision herself and doesn’t want to have her independence or judgment brought into question, so even as her heart sinks, she puts her chin up, waves goodbye to her parents and resigns herself to a summer that is not at all what she imagined.
And, in spite of the dirty bunks, the prison cook, the garbage/food truck and the unending rain, Schneider seems mostly to remember the moments of pleasure and discovery from her unhappy camper days. The book is full of longing for Kin-A-Hurra, sometimes even an overwhelming nostalgia. The angst and the drama are written about with affection, rather than the real, searing pain that Schneider likely felt in 1974.
Schneider’s humour also serves to show how far she has come since Kin-A-Hurra. Though she is often self-deprecating, it is clear that she harbours a great deal of tenderness towards her thirteen-year-old self, something she surely didn’t feel as an awkward, athletic, self-conscious camper. You can tell that Schneider wishes she could spare herself her mistakes with idolized Kenny and cold-shouldered Philip, even as she recognizes those first experiences with boys — and with camp — as important and formative.
In the end, Not a Happy Camper isn’t really about summer camp. It is a book about what it means to be a thirteen-year-old girl, too old to be a blank slate and too young to be sure of yourself. Rather than documenting singalongs and gimp bracelets and deep moments of oneness with nature, Schneider evokes Kin-A-Hurra’s structurelessness, which leaves the girls focused on themselves. Freed from parents and plans, the girls are alone, together, in the wilderness of adolescence.
New as it was to Mindy, camp is not an undiscovered landscape in memoir or fiction. As in most books about being thirteen, Mindy’s summer is one of waiting to be kissed, of learning the difference between pretty boys and nice boys, and of trying on all the different ways that you can choose to be. Mindy is an everygirl and camp could be any moment that is different from everyday, any of those moments when a girl has to decide who she is. Schneider recognizes that, like Camp Kin-A-Hurra, becoming a teenager promises a great deal, but turns out to be a lot more primitive than its press suggests. Thirteen is a backwoods place where you need to find your own amusement. A make-do kind of place. And Schneider and the other misfit campers put in an effort, sometimes in spite of themselves, forming friendships and happy memories out of circumstances that are never what were promised.
Though I never went to summer camp, that’s certainly how I remember thirteen. It was a nice place to revisit with Mindy Schneider. It was a visit that made me a little sad and deeply grateful that I don’t — and can never again — stay there.