How could just one person ruin an entire summer vacation?
Summer Camp stories usually are usually either given a paramilitary setting, with demerits and saluting and color wars, or just leave the fictional campers completely unsupervised and let them do, like, whatever. (Getting sent to camp is also usually treated as a punishment, I guess because kids are super-eager to spend the summer hanging around with their parents?)
This one falls into the latter category, although the whole enterprise is so underdeveloped that one wonders why the author even bothered at all.
The Plot: Thirteen year old Dinah Feeney has actually begged her parents to be sent to Camp Miniwawa for two weeks, so at least there is that.
Dinah sees the two weeks away as her chance to get away from her reputation for being “the kind one,” forever ready to take other peoples’ cast-off belongings (Halloween costumes, hockey skates, ugly sweaters) and people, including her (alleged) BFF:
Wanda Freeman is not exactly the most popular kid in school. How can you get to be popular when your favorite singing group is the Vienna Boys’ Choir? Also, she looks a teeny bit like Howard Cosell. They have the same hairstyle.
I guess what I’m really trying to say is that I’m not bad looking. As a matter of fact, the word for me might even be cute. I’d never use it of course. Never in a million years. When you have a girlfriend who looks like Howard Cosell, there are certain things you learn never to discuss. Being cute is one of them.
But Dinah’s plan to be cute and popular is immediately derailed when boarding the bus for camp she gets thrown together with Fern Wadley. Let me say that again: FERN WADLEY, AND ALL THAT NAME IMPLIES.
Fern is not only fat and so shy she is unable to speak, but is also lacking in all social skills and is constantly in a state of secreting bodily fluids. Seriously, the author couldn’t have made Fern Wadley grosser if she tried.
Assigned to a cabin with preppy Cass Barnhill and Marilyn Powers, the granddaughter of the camp’s founder, and Dinah can tell that they are super-popular and will totally be her lifelong friends; however the counselor assumes that Fern came with Dinah and assigns her to the same can and that is just going to ruin everything.
Dinah complaining about Fern ruining everything makes up the balance of the book, along with descriptions of the various gross things Fern does.
It is rare to read a book where the author seems downright hostile towards almost every single character (there is also a camp counselor that they call “Maggot” and a tall girl that they address as “Big Fella”). When Dinah is unable to “lose” Fern, Cass and Marilyn (who is supposed to be SO HILLARIOUS) freeze her out:
“Cass is right,” agreed Marilyn. “Look, Dinah… I don’t mind weirdos hanging around me once in a while as long as they don’t touch me or anything. But Fern Wadley is just not normal.”
“She’s normal,” I argued weakly. “I know she may be a little dull, but…”
“A little dull?” interrupted Marilyn. “A little dull? My grandfather has a mole on his back that’s more interesting than she is.
“Have you ever noticed how she stands around sometimes and lets her tongue hang out?”
“By getting Fern out on her own, you’ll be giving her a chance to try and find someone with whom she has something in common. You know… someone else who’s backward and gross.”
While Dinah is supposed to be trying to assert herself and not just be “the kind one”, it is not like she is actually any nicer to Fern than anyone else. Of course, Fern is also non-stop weird and gross:
Fern came along, uninvited. I tried not to talk to her much, but she kept tripping over twigs and branches and falling into my back. Twice we knocked heads. Both times she actually said “Bonk”.
I am actually not clear if Fern is supposed to be developmentally disabled, which is the only thing that could actually make this book meaner-spirited, but then we get scenes like this:
Suddenly the chomping stopped and I listened closely as a new noise took its place. I recognized it right away. It was the sound of a hand digging around in a half-empty Cracker Jack box.
Oh, no, I thought. Please don’t let her find it. Just this once… please don’t let her find-
“THE TOY SURPRISE! I FOUND THE TOY SURPRISE! HEY, BUDDY… LOOK AT THIS! A LITTLE BITTY PLASTIC WIENER ON A KEY CHAIN!”
This all culminates with Dinah pushing Fern out of a canoe, which finally gets the message across that she is not part of the friend-group. Fern spends the rest of the summer in the company of the 7 year olds.
Which is sort a weird choice of action. Getting pushed out of a canoe isn’t exactly a bucket of pig’s blood on prom night, especially since Marilyn, Cass and Dinah push each other into the lake regularly as a show of their friendship.
But Fern is pissed, which when it’s time to take the bus home finally makes Dinah a little conscience-stricken:
I took a deep breath. “I just don’t want you to hate me, Fern. That’s all. I’m not a bad person, and I just don’t want to be hated.”
“I can’t help it,” came the reply in a voice much louder than before.
“You mean you hate me?”
Fern turned in my direction. “I thought you’d be different, but you weren’t. You were just like all the others. You think that just because you’re popular, you’re better than-“
“But I’m not!” I interrupted. “I’m not popular. Not usually, that is. Usually I’m just like you.”
Fern snorted and wiped her runny nose on her sleeve.
“Well, not exactly like you,” I corrected.
“Go away,” she muttered.
Stunned, I sat there while “Go away” echoed loudly in my head. I’m not sure what I had expected. “Don’t worry about it,” maybe, or “It’s okay.” But I never expected not to be forgiven.
And actually, that quote makes it sound way more like Dinah gained some self-awareness through this experience. I assure you, she doesn’t.
But at least she’s relieved that she’s still more popular than her BFF!
Wanda was waiting at my house when we got there. I think she was a little bit embarrassed about it. She said that she just happened to be walking past, but I didn’t really buy that. She still had marks on the backs of her legs from sitting on the curb till we arrived.
I still think about Fern a lot.
I’ll always wish that she had forgiven me. Forgiveness makes guilt a lot easier to handle. But I guess I won’t blame her if she never does. One of these days, though I’m going to stop blaming myself. It hasn’t happened yet. I still feel ashamed when I think about her. But I’m going to try.
MAYBE YOU FEEL BAD BECAUSE YOU A BAD PERSON, DINAH.
So… I guess this really highlights the delicacy of writing “realistically” “mean” characters? Get it right and you’ve got a classic. Get it wrong and you have a paperback turd.
She was wearing expensive-looking hiking shorts and two polo shirts. Two. One on top of the other. Before Cassandra, I had only seen that sort of thing on store mannequins. Both her collars were turned up.