September 2007

Benjamin Jacob Hollars

nonfiction

Not a Happy Camper by Mindy Schneider

Having worked at summer camp for three years, I slipped into Mindy Schneider’s memoir, Not A Happy Camper, expecting to have heard it all before. I was disheartened to find my initial assessment not far off the mark.

Set at Camp Kin-A-Hurra, an all-girls Jewish camp of the 1970s, a retrospective Schneider regales the reader with humorous anecdotes of her camp experiences in the summer of her 13th year. Her book includes all the proper ingredients for such a tale -- campfires, ghost stories, canoes, swim tests, romance, hiking, tents, bad food, and of course, sneaking out of cabins after dark. While all these parts are necessary, in no way do they transcend the typical, run-of-the-mill, nostalgic, starry-eyed stories of summer camp that have preceded her. It is a typical coming-of-age story, but therein lies the problem -- its typicality.

The book is redeemed, however, not in the story itself, but in the writing. The quick-wit of Schneider functions as a kind of life preserver, pulling the traditional tale from the bottom of the murky lake and adding an insightful clarity. Observations such as “I’ve always resented teams that huddle and pray before a game, as if they assume God has time for amateur athletics,” as well as her decision whether or not to administer CPR to a boy (“even if he screws up and dies, he’ll still be the first boy I ever kissed,”) tightens the meandering plot like a much-needed acupuncture. She shines brightest in her subtle moments, in which the humor is a byproduct of the story, and not the target for which she aims.

For some, the story might be considered too “cutesy,” one perpetually riding the line of sentimentally. To hear the retrospective voice of the author attempting to resurrect her 13-year-old thoughts is challenging, and occasionally, too many liberties are taken. To listen to young Schneider revel in the privacy of her all girls camp and then, just moments later, realize that she isn’t “getting any younger” and is in dire need of the company of males, is the perfect formula for eye-rolling. The voices become mixed, and while the retrospection is what allows for humor, there are moments where the reader hopes for a more honest portrayal; one in which humor is not purpose of the scene.

Another instance in which Schneider’s successes outweigh the book’s typicality, however, is in her implementation of a proper camp lexicon. It is evident to anyone who has ever slept in a cabin, unpacked a trunk, unrolled a sleeping bag, or sang a song around a campfire, that Schneider is the real-deal when it comes to summer camp. Not only do her experiences make it the “Everyman” version of camp, but her precision of proper details -- the construction of a God’s Eye in arts and crafts, the “get out of the lake” rule when the thunder comes, the waiting for packages of junk food from parents far, far away -- all add to the dreamy atmosphere that always manages to linger within these summertime tales. However, while the Everyman attempt functions primarily by reaching out to a larger audience, it stifles the opportunity to tell an entirely unique story; one which we’ve never heard before.

The truth is, my indulgent side enjoyed it. As the front flap claims, it is in fact a “must-read for anyone who’s ever been to summer camp.” Don’t expect anything you haven’t seen before, but you can expect to smile, to nod, to transport yourself to your own summer camp days long forgotten. Expect to recall the fear of fish nibbling at toes, the scent of calamine lotion, the stifling heat of a zipped sleeping bag in July. Certainly, you can expect to be entertained. Just don’t expect to be enlightened.

Not a Happy Camper by Mindy Schneider
Grove Press
ISBN: 0802118488
256 Pages