A memoir of an offbeat kosher camp where the cook put cheese in the beef stew and campers wrote parodies of “O Come, All Ye Faithful”
Not a Happy Camper: A Memoir. By Mindy Schneider. Grove/Atlantic, 240 pp., $24.
By Janice Harayda
Remember when camp meant S’mores and “Kum-Ba-Yah” instead of math, computers or weight loss? When you went for fun instead of self-improvement? Mindy Schneider was born at the shank of the baby boom, perhaps the last generation to have experienced camp as something closer to Animal House than an Advanced Placement course with sunblock. And her memoir is an offbeat elegy for that vanishing world of pranks, mosquitoes, bad food, color wars and name tags sewn into your underwear.
Schneider was 13 when, in 1974, she spent eight weeks at the idiosyncratic Camp Kin-A-Hurra on Lake Wally in Maine. Kin-A-Hurra was nominally kosher. But that didn’t keep the cook from putting cheese in the beef stew and the campers from writing parodies of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Anyone who went there could pretty much forget about making lanyards.
As Schneider tells it, Kin-A-Hurra was an “anti-camp,” a place where the supervision was so lax that the loopy inmates often ran the asylum. Once a bunkhouse burned down because the counselors were too distracted to notice that a group of boys had put candles under their beds to try to warm them up before they turned in. Campers took hikes from which they were lucky to emerge with only one body part in a cast and got carbon monoxide poisoning from the dilapidated green truck that served as the camp van. Girls in training bras tried desperately to find boyfriends among boys who, when they wanted to get your attention, shot a rubber band off their braces.
Schneider has shaped all of this into a kind of backwoods sitcom-in-print, heavy on anecdotes and light on insight and analysis. Her book is amply padded with such things as a full-page parody of “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” three verses of which consist of nothing but successive iterations of the phrase “peanut butter.” And it’s hard to know how much of her story to take literally, given that she admits to using composite characters and to altering the chronology of events. It’s also difficult to believe that even composite 13-year-olds would say some of the lines she puts in their mouths.
But if her details at times defy belief, Schneider captures extremely well the spirit of a certain kind of prelapsarian camp experience, a combination of agony and exuberance. In her last chapter she describes a 1997 reunion that took place after Kin-A-Hurra closed. Five hundred former campers made the trip back to Lake Wally, and most came alone. They left their spouses at home, Schneider says, “knowing full well they just wouldn’t get it, this thing we once belonged to, this cult we can never leave.”
Best line: Schneider reflects on her first sleepaway camp, Camp Cicada: “Every play put on at Camp Cicada was an adaptation of an extravagant Broadway musical, though they kept the costs down by doing only the first act. Due to this restriction, the two oldest bunks’ production of 1776 ended with Congress still in disagreement and nobody ever signed the Declaration of Independence.”
Worst line: A camper suggests that the popularity of folk songs at Jewish summer camps may reflect a desire by Jews to cling to hope. Then she corrects herself: “But these songs aren’t just for Jewish summer camps, so maybe it’s more of a widespread adolescent cry, a plea for a different kind of change, internal as opposed to external. With hormones raging out of control, coupled with an inability to understand why is happening to us, perhaps the only way to release the pent-up frustrations and anxiety is by shaking our fists and boldly screaming out, ‘Yes! Someone’s crying, Lord! Kum-Ba-Yah, dammit!’” This is one of the places where Schneider’s teenagers sound more like tenured sociology professors.
Recommendation? Not a Happy Camper is an adult book, but many teenagers would enjoy its irreverent humor and send-ups of the camp staff. You might also consider this book as 50th or 60th birthday gift for a baby boomer who still knows all the words to “Great Big Globs of Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts.”
Read an excerpt: You can find an excerpt from Not a Happy Camper at www.teenreads.com/reviews/0802118488.asp.
Editor: Lauren Wein
Published: June 2007 www.not-a-happy-camper.com
Furthermore: Kin-A-Hurra is a homonym for the Yiddish phrase kein ayin hora (“no evil eye” or “may the evil eye stay away”).
Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a former book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She wrote the comic novels The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004).
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.