The Inverted Forest - John E. Dalton

Late on a warm summer night in rural Missouri, an elderly camp director hears a squeal of female laughter and goes to investigate. At the camp swimming pool he comes upon a bewildering scene: his counselors stripped naked and engaged in a provocative celebration. The first camp session is set to start in two days. He fires them all. As a result, new counselors must be hired and brought to Kindermann Forest Summer Camp. One of them is Wyatt Huddy, a genetically disfigured young man who has been living in a Salvation Army facility. Gentle and diligent, Wyatt suffers a deep anxiety that his intelligence might be subnormal. But while Wyatt is not worldly, he is also not an innocent. He has escaped a punishing home life with a reclusive and violent older sister. Along with the other new counselors, Wyatt arrives expecting to care for children. To their astonishment, they learn that they will be responsible for 104 severely developmentally disabled adults, all of them wards of the state. For Wyatt it is a dilemma that turns his world inside out. Physically, he is indistinguishable from the campers he cares for. Inwardly, he would like to believe he is not of their tribe. Fortunately for Wyatt, there is a young woman on staff who understands his predicament better than he might have hoped.

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This story starts out in the summer of 1996, though I'm not sure why the author bothered -- there was nothing overtly '90s about the storyline. I'm guessing it was done to make sense of the present day ending maybe? What with the racism and despicable behavior towards the disadvantaged, I felt this story having a more early 1960s vibe. 

 

From the synopsis, I was under the impression that the story was mostly supposed to follow the character Wyatt Huddy but it didn't feel like he played a huge role in the storyline until the big dramatic moment near the end. But anyway, in the beginning Wyatt is a physically disfigured man in his early twenties living in the stockroom of a thrift store. His disfigurement --- the left side of his face is higher than the right, making his eyes off center by 1/2" and his nose pressed inwards a bit -- causes people to assume he has some form of mental retardation when in fact there's no such issue. Possibly a minor learning disability, but that's about the extent of it. Wyatt accepts a job working at a summer camp as a counselor. He assumes he'll be counseling young kids but comes to find out that the first two weeks of this camp's season are reserved for adult campers who are mentally & physically disabled wards of the state. 

 

At first I thought this might be a slow burn type of novel, but in the end the whole thing struck me as a little too dull, which was made worse by the fact that I REALLY REALLY did not like the camp director. Not only did he say some gawdawful things to people but dang, that guy reeked creepy old man! 

 

It took about 60 pages or so for the camp to really start up and then much of the novel just sounded like a boring soap opera, but one oddly leaning towards the heavily lascivious. I mean, the story really fixates on this angle. The drama of the story didn't really kick in until one of the camp employees takes advantage (sexually) of one of the campers, Wyatt finds them and confronts his co-worker and the co-worker makes up some "she was hurt and I was helping her" excuse. Directly after that moment, Part 2 of the novel starts up in 2011 explaining what ended up happening, what the long term repercussions were and a "where are they now" follow up with the major characters. 

 

Having worked in camps for a number of years, I had high hopes for this one and sadly it just didn't quite reach those hopes. The camp environment was there but what could have been a touching, poignant story just turned out to be an off-putting combination of ick and WTF. My main problem with this one though is that the plot seemed to be made up of a bunch of half-thoughts -- the relationship with the nurse, how'd that escalate to that level seemingly out of nowhere; what ended up happening that night when everything changed, what made him snap to that level? ... so many things not really clearly explained, the reader is just expected to "get it" I guess, but sorry, I felt a distinct lack of backstory on so many of these characters.