Writer Mindy Schneider was 13 once, and she remembers it with photographic precision and pungent Jewish humor. Mindy's 13-year-old self is off to summer camp. Camp Kin-a-Hurra is, she believes, the place where she will meet her first real boyfriend, bond with sophisticated girls her own age, and learn something so secret about growing up that she’s not even sure what it is. She doesn't even mind the long ride since, for once, she has the back seat to herself instead of being jammed in next to two brothers, one of whom invariably throws up when he gets in a car.
One reason why Mindy is so thrilled to be going to Kin-a-Hurra is that she picked it out. Unlike the New York camps her parents swore by and argued about, where Mindy had endured two disappointing summers, Kin-a-Hurra is in Maine and run by the dynamic but possibly insane Saul. Saul visited Mindy at home to make his pitch, touting the many wonders of his paradise in the woods: photography, wilderness hikes, an international staff and heated bunks (dormitories).
When most of Saul’s claims turn out to be highly exaggerated, Mindy is not really upset. "I grew up,” Schneider explains, “in a family that was so strict and had so many rules it made life crazy. Then I went to a place that had no rules at all and somehow it made perfect sense." She isn’t upset when the toilets are out of order (because it means the girls get to crash the boy’s side in search of relief) or when camp transportation consists of a rickety old station wagon on its last tires and something known as the Green Truck, about which one of Mindy’s cohorts opines, "I think Saul bought it on sale after the Holocaust."
Saul also tells Mindy and her parents that Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan had once been counselors at Kin-a-Hurra. Moshe Dayan had taught archery, Saul swore. To the 13-year-old Mindy, it seems logical enough. “It explained Mr. Dayan's eye and all." Mindy learns that a lot of Jewish freedom fighters did attend Saul’s camp way back when. But not Golda and Moshe. The true lore of Kin-a-Hurra is imparted by Philip, whom she doesn’t want for a boyfriend.
Not surprisingly, Mindy and her fellow bunk-mates are nothing short of obsessed with the subject of boys. Constantly comparing herself to the other girls, speculating about which ones have more worldly experience, is part of Mindy’s coming of age at Camp Kin-a-Hurra. She pursues a boy named Kenny because he is older, taller and cute, but winds up with the initially rejected Philip, because he is nice and likes her, two qualities too good to overlook. Yet, when they finally get in a clutch, the young but winsomely wise Mindy finds herself thinking, “When will it end? This kiss, this unpleasant moment, this whole hideous adolescence?"
Mindy battles constantly with self-esteem: "Unless I lost fifteen pounds in my sleep I was going to be a big-nosed blob in a bathing suit dog-paddling my way through the next day's waterfront races." She can’t sing, either. But she finds that she has a talent for writing during her super-charged summer at Kin-a-Hurra.
In NOT A HAPPY CAMPER, Mindy Schneider manages to keep her young teen self and her mature writer self separated most of the time, which is not an easy feat. But occasionally we hear the adult voice chiming in to good effect. For instance, the "child" Mindy never stopped to wonder how her parents were able to afford such an expensive summer experience for her. Was it because they were richer than they let on? No matter. It was, the "adult" Mindy realizes retrospectively, a remarkable gift. It enabled her to tackle the thorny problem of growing up while living for a season in a loose-knit gaggle of her peers, where any crazy thing might happen and lots of wonderful things did.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on June 10, 2007