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For These Unhappy Campers, Trauma Blights Their Lives 'Forevermore'

"Summer afternoon — summer afternoon." According to Henry James, these are "the two most beautiful words in the English language." But "summer camp — summer camp," that's a whole different story. Kim Fu's The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore presents a sleepaway sojourn that turns shattering for five adolescent girls. The weaponized world of contemporary fiction can make even an innocent object like a kayak resemble Chekhov's pistol, which must inevitably explode in the third act.

In Fu's novel, her second, Nita, Isabel, Kayla, Dina and Siobhan embark on their venerable summer camp's annual kayaking overnight, heading for one of the tiny islands off the Pacific Northwest coast. Fu's description of the adventurers is crisp: "They stood straight-backed and solemn-faced as soldiers in formation, even the ones who itched to squirm, to collapse into their normal, slumped posture, who were rolling their toes in their shoes and humming to themselves, squeezing their lips in their fingers to suppress a bubble of nervous laughter."

Jan, a white-haired matron who attended the camp half a century ago, acts as their guide. Equipped with basic kayaking skills and such traditional impedimenta as marshmallows, trail mix and sleeping bags, the girls board their vessels. It all begins innocently and easily.

And then, as these things tend to do, the voyage goes awry. The token adult turns out to be not as tough as she seems, falling ill immediately. "In the circular face cutout of Jan's mummy-style sleeping bag," her skin "was a waxy yellow-white, her open eyes bulging and burning with a catlike intensity." The five girls must now fend for themselves. They immediately run into trouble, not at the hands of fate, but at the hand of the author. And you thought an ice cube down your shorts was the height of sleepaway camp inconvenience.

The problem with 'Camp Forevermore' is a fatal one — the action is too tame, the consequences too attenuated, the 'Mean Girls' trope too predictable, for the set-up to pay off.

The problem with Camp Forevermore is a fatal one — the action is too tame, the consequences too attenuated, the Mean Girls trope too predictable, for the set-up to pay off in any satisfyingly dramatic way. It's not Lord of the Flies, more like Girls Gone Mild. Over the course of a night and a day, the titular quintet suffers its share of first world worries and experiences trouble getting found, but nothing entertainingly horrific occurs. Entitlement hangs over the group like a fog. (Our intrepid heroines run low on gummi bears. Siobhan becomes thirsty.)

The horror comes later, manifesting itself throughout the campers' lives. Fu paints a portrait of each girl as an adult, and some of the images are haunting. Siobhan, a warrior princess as a preteen, "a freckled, blue-eyed redhead, pale and dense as a block of shortening," goes on to live a life of quiet desperation. Nita turns out to be a spectrum-y genius who suffers a serious brain injury. Kayla's childhood, the only one treated in flashback, was peripatetic and harrowing as she traveled the country with her dirt-poor mother. We reunite with Isabel, years after Camp Forevermore, just as she loses her husband in a surfing accident. And Dina appears cursed by her extraordinary prettiness, fruitlessly chasing a modeling career that never quite pans out. The unhappy campers stay unhappy — quoth the raven — forevermore. Early trauma makes a satisfying life an impossibility — a fair point, though the trauma here seems too slight to carry so much weight.

Jean Zimmerman's latest novel, Savage Girl, is out now in paperback. She posts daily atBlog Cabin.

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Jean Zimmerman