Friday, March 31, 2017

Book Review: "How to Survive a Summer" by Nick White

"In the summer of 1999, when I was fifteen years old, I spent almost four weeks at a camp that was supposed to cure me of my homosexuality. Though I changed in many ways at Camp Levi, my desires—to the grief of everyone involved—did not."

Will Dillard is a graduate student in college working on his dissertation in film studies. He cannot seem to stay in a romantic relationship; in fact, even maintaining friendships is fairly difficult unless the other person is satisfied with a relatively one-sided relationship on which they'll have to expend most of the effort.

It's not that Will thinks he's better than others, or likes being anti-social—he just finds it difficult to remain present all the time, because he is constantly fighting to hide the traumas he sustained during a summer he spent at a gay "conversion" camp. He's never told anyone the entire story of his experience there, and he's always lived a relatively solitary life.

But when a horror movie about the camp, which has as its roots a memoir written by someone he knew from that summer, is released, and starts catching on, Will can't escape the trauma or his secrets. He knows his refusal to deal with these issues is the roadblock keeping him from truly confiding in and loving someone, but the thought of dredging up those memories is more than he can bear. Yet when he decides to head home to Mississippi to try and see his estranged father, a former preacher, the feelings of self-hatred and guilt come swarming back.

"I learned the past is not the past, a lump of time you can quarantine and forget about, but a reel of film in your brain that keeps on rolling, spooling and unspooling itself regardless of whether or not you are watching it."

After encountering two of his fellow campers and one former counselor, all of whom were part of the events of that traumatic summer, Will decides the only thing he can do is go back to the deserted campsite and confront what happened as well as his own complicity in those events. At the same time he must come to term with his own identity, the family secrets he has tried to keep hidden and those he has tried to embrace, and the path he has followed since then.

Nick White's How to Survive a Summer is at times a searingly emotional look at how hard it can be to embrace and love who you are when you are told that who you are is an abomination, and you must change. It's also a powerful story of finally finding the courage to trust others and yourself in order to move past paralyzing trauma.

There were times, however, that the plot meandered off course, veering too much into the stories Will's mother told him about the mysterious, courageous women who lived in the strange area she grew up in. There was even a point in which I thought the book might become a horror story. Luckily, White pulled his plot back together, getting back to Will's journey to confront his demons and deal with his past once and for all.

White is a very talented writer—sometimes the most emotion in his story occurs during the quieter, purer moments than where you might expect them to come. He wasn't afraid to make Will somewhat unsympathetic in his treatment of those who care about him, but yet you still want to understand his story.

There were times, of course, where just the thought of what was being done to these kids was simply horrifying; the fact that it is 2017 now and there are many (including the U.S. vice-president) who believe "gay conversion" should still be used disgusts me. But it is a credit to White's strength as a storyteller that the book wasn't as maudlin or upsetting as I feared.

NetGalley and PENGUIN GROUP Blue Rider Press & Plume provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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