CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 33 . . . . May 5, 2017
Ingrid is headed to summer camp, something her mother decided would be good for her. She isn't entirely sold on the idea, but the pamphlets looked nice and, because she thinks her mother's sure she'll wimp out, has decided to make the best of it. She even tells herself it may even be a relaxing vacation, but nothing is ever that easy or simple when her mother's involved.
Ingrid arrives with the very specific list of items the camp asked her to bring, along with a few comfort items and books, but it quickly becomes apparent Ingrid has once again underestimated her mother. Her books are confiscated, the eight other campers appear to be freaks Ingrid could never have anything in common with, and it turns out the bathroom is "anywhere you want to dig a hole".
Since her mother isn't there to hear her frustration, Ingrid sits down with her journal and writes the first of several letters to her mother that she can't send, if she decides to, until the three-week camping experience is over. It's not as if her mother would listen if she were there anyway: Ingrid wants to be a professional singer like her mother, but no matter how many times she tells her mother her career won't take the same turn her mother's career did, Ingrid's forbidden to pursue singing. If she manages to get through three weeks of roughing it in the woods, Ingrid's mother won't stand in the way of Ingrid's dreams; if Ingrid drops out of the camp, she also forfeits a career in singing. The stakes are high, and neither is the type of person to back down.
Her problems seem overwhelming and unfair when she arrives, but learning what the others – including an ex-convict, a teen mom who wants her baby back, and a girl who escaped a cult – are dealing with puts her jealousy and fights with her mother in perspective. One of them won't be making it the full three weeks: Bob, who demands to go by 'Peace' and prefers to be nude – something Ingrid becomes all too familiar with when she ends up sharing a tent with him and the ex-con Tavik, who goes out of his way to do more harm than good in the group. Readers will share Ingrid's disgust and suffer along with her each time Peace "hangs his hairy ass" over her as they settle down for the night. While Peace puts all his energy into causing problems for as many people as possible, the others pull together and help each other through their daily challenges as well as the challenges they will be facing when they leave the three-week camp.
After days of hiking and no privacy, Ingrid heads off to a cove where she thinks she might be able to bathe without interruption. While she's bathing, Peace comes up from behind and grabs her, telling her he could rape and kill her without anyone knowing. The scene seems out of place at first, but people quickly respond to Ingrid's screams, and Peace-Bob is tackled and restrained. When they gather around the fire to talk about what happened, Peace is adamant Ingrid is lying and that he did nothing wrong. Ingrid is ready to accept that no one believes her and Peace is going to get away with the assault when the quietest of the group, Melissa, who has recently escaped a cult and is at the camp to build her self-confidence, overcomes her fears and speaks up in support of Ingrid. The attempted sexual assault brings the group together, and, with Peace quickly removed from the site, the campers become stronger as a group and as individuals who know they are strong enough and have the support, to face anything when their three weeks of camp are over.
Alternating between letters, mostly addressed to her mother with a few to her ex, Isaac, descriptions of the daily challenge of finding their way from campsite to campsite, and flashbacks to the string of events that brought her to the extreme wilderness camp, Ingrid gradually comes to understand, rather than judge, the other campers and her mother. It's revealed that Ingrid's mother, to whom Ingrid has been writing letters in her journal, committed suicide shortly before Ingrid left for camp. Although her mother's gone, Ingrid honours the final promise she made to her mother: she would attend the wilderness camp, and, if she didn't make it the full three weeks, she wouldn't pursue a singing career.
Not every character is likeable from the start, and Ingrid's mother stays a difficult character to understand to the very end. Readers will be shaken and surprised when it's disclosed that Ingrid's mother, who Ingrid's been talking to as if her mother's been waiting for Ingrid to fail and is ready to gloat when she does, is gone. Readers will come to feel empathy for Ingrid as well as her mother who, at first, appears jealous and selfish but may just be trying to protect her daughter from the pain and disappointment she had experienced as a professional singer.
My only reservation would be the possibility that readers may be triggered by some of the events in the book. It's difficult to imagine a reader who would not have been affected by one of sensitive topics brought up in the book, including rejection when coming out to family members, abusive and controlling relationships, suicide, and sexual assault. While there's not easy way to provide a clear trigger warning, or ensure supports are in place for readers who may be triggered, many readers would find comfort in the way the campers talk about their experiences and find that they are stronger because of what they have overcome.
With twists and revelations on every page, readers will find themselves cheering on characters even while judging them for their flaws. An extreme camping version of The Breakfast Club, Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined is a novel readers won't be able to put down.
A MEd (Literacy) and MLIS graduate, Crystal Sutherland is the librarian at the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women and lives in Halifax, NS.
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