Fun – problems – surprises. Sharing them with Sal Fisher is like spending a thrilling summer at camp yourself!
“Thrilling”? Well, the thrills are of only the most gentle and reassuring kind, which was not my intention when the week started, but turned out to be just thing for this wild and crazy virus-fueled week!
Background: I don’t have a ton of info on the Sal Fisher books, but it appears she starred in three books about Girl Scouting between 1953 and 1959, and this is the final one in the series.
The Plot: And oh, is it reassuring to know that whether it is 1959 or 1989 or 2019, Girl Scout Camp has remained pretty much the same!
Sal, a recent fly-up up to Intermediate Scouting (which would make her about 9 years old) is SO EXCITED to finally be able to attend Camp Lenoloc with her older sister Jane. As the girls eagerly pack for the long bus ride from suburban New York or New Jersey (the geographic details are deliberately vague), Sal is only disturbed by the fact that she sees her BFF, Nancy, heading across the street with cook-out gear to her friend Mia’s house, having turned down an invitation to join the Fishers for a send-off dinner! Is life going on without her already???
Mrs. Fisher reminds her that she still has her friend Ginger coming to dinner, and even lets her off the hook for setting the table, her usual dinnertime chore, which makes Sal VERY SUSPICIOUS.
Mia’s mother soon lures both Ginger and a pouting Sal out of the house, ostensibly to make use of their bird-identifying skills when…
Mia pointed, not toward a tree, but toward the fireplace; not toward a strange bird, but toward Sal’s entire Girl Scout troop!
“Surprise!” the girls shouted as they rushed forward to surround Sal and Ginger.
This is about the level of conflict we will encounter throughout the book, a mild misunderstanding resolved when our young heroines prove themselves to be loyal, courteous, thrifty, cheerful, a friend to all and a sister to every other Girl Scout.
But let’s pause on Sal’s troop, which as depicted in both Gardner’s dialogue and Mary Stevens’s illustrations, are an incredibly diverse bunch in terms of race, ethnicity and religion…
Budding gourmand Sal rapidly recollects that scouting has given her the opportunity to sample everything from borscht to chitlins. Sal also realizes how lucky she is to be attending camp for two two-week sessions, as some of her troopmates only get to go for one; and no one gets to attend for the whole summer these days, as (of course) there are too many damn baby boomers!
Sal’s friend Carol notes that her cousin, Stephanie, will also be attending Lenoloc at the same time as Sal and Ginger, but warns:
“She lives near Madison and thinks she’s pretty special.”
“How do you mean?” Ginger demanded.
Carol shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know. Kind of fancy or something. She’s not your type at all. Oh, you’ll see what I mean when you meet her.”
After a chaotic send-off at the bus (REALISTIC) and rest stop at which many snacks are purchased, Sal gets separated from Ginger and finds the only available seat next to girl with beauty-parlor perfect hair who is deeply engrossed in her transistor radio.
This of course is Stephanie, who is rather show-offy about the radio, her Polaroid camera, her $25 a week spending money and her fancy nighties. But she also seems desperate to make friends, and upon their arrival at Lenoloc (after lice inspection, lunch, and tent assignments) goes along with the other girls in the patrol to elect Ginger as Patrol Leader.
All it takes is one night shivering in her shortie pajamas to sufficiently humble Stephanie into accepting Sal’s offer of a spare pair of flannel PJs and the two become fast friends, Stephanie immediately taking to her new nickname of “Steve.”
Guiding the girls through their camp experiences are the Hill Top units three counselors, Martha Johnson, Hiroki (Hero) Otashu and Kay Ruth:
Sal noticed how very different from each other the three leaders were. Hero was a Japanese girl, short and slender, with smooth black hair cut very short. Kay was a tall negro girl who had warm dark eyes and the graceful body of a dancer. Martha was dark and sturdy. She had broad shoulders and strong, muscular arms and legs.
Joining Sal, Ginger and Steve in their tent is Peg, who enthralls Sal with tales of backyard camping in her own tent, starting Sal on a scheme to convince her older sister to pool their allowances to save up for camping gear for themselves.
Foremost in Sal’s mind is passing the advanced swim test by visitor’s day, in time to surprise her parents with the coveted rank of Blue Cap (even the color-coded swim caps hadn’t changed 30 years later!) Swimming tests are administered by the elegant and efficient waterfront director, Splash, but Sal bungles her first attempt, refusing to pace herself and take the suggested rest periods between activities.
Splash gently reprimands her (“A swimmer has to use good judgement, Sal”) and Steve, having won her Blue Cap, is the one to comfort her.
But Sal can’t stay disappointed for long- first thing the next morning she goes to apologize to Splash, who generously retests her on the portions she flunked (P.S. SHE GOT THE BLUE CAP), and then it is on to crafts with Shoshana Berg, the mother of camper Debbie and a renowned Israeli artist, and then a camp-out out a local farm, complete with haunted corncrib that turns out to be a raccoon.
And Sal is constantly collecting more ideas to take back home to her troop in Brookdale, and every letter home urges her parents to “PLEASE SAVE EVERYTHING” for all of the camping she plans to do upon her return.
Before she knows it the first session is over, and Peg and Steve are out, replaced in their tent by the morbidly introverted city girl Karen, and Denise (Denny), the younger sister of a Popular Counselor-in-Training.
Sal is thrilled and surprised when she is elected Patrol Leader for the second session, but disappointed in her new roomies. Karen is more interested in the camp library than any of the wonders of nature surrounding them, and Denny is constantly being “mothered” by her over-protective sister.
Sal is disappointed when she draws Karen as her partner for the camp-wide scavenger hunt, but Karen proves herself with suggestion that they catch a bat in the attic of the infirmary as their entry for “most unusual thing”. Not a bit squeamish, Karen has even come prepared with a large mayonnaise jar with holes punched in the top! While they easily catch the sleeping bat and bring it back to Hill Top to win the prize… this is the most unrealistic part of the book. If you try to knock a sleeping bat into a large jar or can, the bat will wake up and cause a solid 40 minutes of hysteria, I KNOW THIS FROM EXPERIENCE.
(The only other unrealistic part of the book? Sal and Ginger are allowed to sleep head-to-head in their tent, which any former camper will tell you is risking a LICE PARTY.)
Sal’s leadership qualities are tested when the camp newspaper runs a poetry contest, and Denny’s sister pressures her to enter it, since everyone knows that THAT IS THE ONLY THING YOU ARE GOOD AT, DENISE.
Denny cracks under the pressure, and when Sal collects the poems from her Patrol, she realizes that Denny copied hers from a book of nature poetry at the camp library. Unsure what to do, Sal buys some time from her counselors, torn between not wanting to be a party to plagiarism and not wanting to be a “snitch”.
Sal’s plan works, as a guilt-stricken Denny privately confesses, relating that she feels like she can never live up to her popular and accomplished sister, which Sal handles with sympathy and compassion. Denny goes on to redeem herself by coming up with the perfect idea for Hill Top’s gift to the camp: collecting and binding a volume of stories and legends about the camp! Thus resolves the biggest moral conflict you will find in this book.
Before Sal knows it, the summer is over and she, Jane and Ginger are back on the bus home! Sal realizes she never had time to get homesick, but back in Brookdale she is instantly “Campsick”.
But her parents have a couple of surprises up their sleeves, starting when they insist upon eating lunch on the backyard patio… where they have set up a brand-new backyard tent for Sal and Jane! BUT WAIT, THERE IS MORE! When Sal goes into the garage, she finds it packed with camping equipment, including a family-size tent, as her parents announce that they will be all be going camping for their family vacation next week!
Stylin’ Department: “I love my new Scout Bermudas!”