Rudy Miller hates Camp Algonkian Island so much he’ll do anything to escape….
Background: Canadian writer Gordon Korman retains a cultish appeal among a certain segment of Middle Readers, in part because (as stated in the Scholastic Book Services biographical blurbs) “he wrote his first book, This Can’t Be Happening at McDonald Hall! when he was twelve years old”.
Korman had published a half-dozen books by the time he graduated from high school, including three more McDonald Hall books and this one.
The Plot: As the book opens, Camp Director Arthur Warden is preparing for the opening day of the boys’ camp founded by his grandfather, Old Elias Warden, when he receives a concerned letter from the Millers, regarding the upcoming stay of their son, Rudy:
…we are sending him to Algonkian Island on the advice of his school guidance department. They feel that he must be placed in a social atmosphere where he will be exposed to all sorts of people, an atmosphere of hearty physical activity mixed with healthy comradeship.
Mr. Warden looked up. “What an excellent description of camp!” he said aloud.
Obviously, this is an adult whose delusions of importance are going to be shattered.
Upon his arrival via the Algonkian Island ferry, Rudy is a recognizable type from the Korman canon, the likable smart-aleck who remains impressively Bartleby-like in the face of adult-sanctioned activities, while secretly moving forward with his own agenda.
After implying his status as a non-swimmer with the waterfront staff, Rudy distastefully regards the phony enthusiasm of the staff at his assigned cabin:
Rudy looked back at Dave and then again at the counselor of Cabin 13. A clone he decided. There were two of them.
“Hi, there!” the clone greeted him with a hearty slap on the back. “I’m Chip, your bunk counsellor. What’s your name?”
“Just put me down as Anonymous.”
I’ll admit, I always slightly preferred I Want to Go Home! To Korman’s similarly-themed No Coins, Please as an actual child; as an adult, I’m surprised how much more sophisticated Korman’s writing grew in the three years between the two books. There is still a lot to recommend it, but often Rudy’s wisecracks come off on the level of Garfield thought-balloons.
Rudy is given a sidekick in another reluctant camper, Mike Webster, sent to camp by his parents as a “reward” for getting straight-As. In awe of Rudy’s ability to get out of doing camp activities by simply preferring not to, Mike is also a nervous giggler, and Rudy’s ongoing commentary on the camp, and especially on Director Warden…
“How appropriate,” murmured Rudy, nodding wisely. “A Warden for Alcatraz.”
Mike laughed out loud.
“…Aside from the obvious advantage of enjoyment, a camper grows up with clear eyes, strong back and straight limbs.”
“Obviously,” murmured Rudy, “you didn’t get to go to camp.”
Mike looked a Mr. Warden’s skinny bow legs and the whole thing proved to much for him.
…soon has the two boys assigned to permanent garbage detail.
Bonding as the discover their shared distaste for being at camp, they scheme first to get sent home by making the camp uninhabitable (by damming up a creek and flooding the place) and then escaping from the island in ever-more elaborate schemes.
Initially excusing their absence by announcing they are working on “a saletè” which Chip takes to be some kind elaborate art project. When Rudy and Mike present their counselor with a box of dirt (which is accurate, in French). Chip is not amused and orders the boys to participate with their cabin in the usual activities.
Rudy proves to be secretly gifted at all camp activities and sports, single-handedly winning the baseball and soccer games, as well as saving nemesis Harold Greene from drowning. Insisting that he only ever said that he doesn’t do those things, not that he can’t do them, Rudy grows ever-more disgusted with the counselors’ attempts to recruit him into various sports tournaments for their own personal glory.
Rudy and Mike are still trying to escape, and generally inadvertently wreaking havoc on the island as the counselors wildly overreact to their shenanigans, while also trying to woo Rudy into another display of his talents. The overly-confident baseball coach foolishly wagers Rudy’s participation on the team on a chess game; if Rudy wins he gets to be Camp Director for a day.
Rudy handily wins the game, and upon Mr. Warden’s departure for the mainland the next morning, takes over running the camp, starting with announcing an exhausting slate of activities for the staff. When Chip and the other counselors protest and attempt to renege on the deal, Rudy takes it in stride:
“If you’re quite finished,” said Rudy, “we can do this the democratic way. Who in this room believes in the concept of freedom and justice and wants me to serve my rightful term as camp director?”
Unanimously supported by the campers, the staff realizes they’re out-numbered and surrounded and had better play fair.
But even Chip gets into the spirit of things when Rudy announces a staff-wide scavenger hunt and presents the teams with preposterous lists of items to scavenge (nuclear waste, brontosaurus rib, man-eating plant…); the fun only ends when Mr. Warden returns to find his staff engaged in an all-out brawl when a game of tag got a little too competitive.
Parents’ Day lurks at the halfway point of the camp season, and the counselors are eager to meet Rudy’s parents and find out exactly what kind of home and family life are responsible for creating him. His parents turn out to be distressingly normal, although his 8-year-old brother, Jeffrey, shares both Rudy’s contempt for authority figures and dry sense of humor (“I taught him everything he knows”).
The disaster of disasters finally befalls the camp on Parents’ Day, when a sudden downpour results in an unprecedented flash-flood, and Rudy and Mike realize that the spot they had staked out for their camp-destroying dam had also been discovered by an industrious beaver.
Rudy and Mike both decide to stick it out until the end of the summer after all, although on the last day Chip notes that Rudy and Mike successfully escaped nine more times “We caught him six, and three he came back on his own.”
As Rudy boards the ferry back to the mainland, he makes a point of telling Chip that he just can’t wait to come back next year, and another counselor taunts him with the prospect of Rudy trying to break in instead of breaking out if they were to ban him.
As the ferry pulls away, a supply ship arrives at the dock, ready to unload its cargo: 1,000 volleyballs, signed for by R. Miller, Camp Director.
Sign It Was Written In Canada Department:
“The water must be over a metre deep in the centre.”
Cover Art Department:
I prefer the first edition Apple art pictured above, although a later reprint might better capture the chaos that reigns throughout the story.
Out of print for many years, it finally got reprinted for the 21st century, recasting Rudy and Mike as teenaged dirtbags on the cover. Ugh.