Here is a rundown of all of the symbolism and other literary devices I've found in the first half of The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth. I'm referring exclusively to the book, not the movie. It's mostly just the first half because I find the second half upsetting and I don't read it as much.
The End of Childhood: Stolen Bubble Gum, Dead Parents, and Quake Lake: As the book begins, the weather is hot and "has been cooking" for days. The plot is also already cooking, since Cameron's parents left for the trip that would kill them and the two girls kissed and Cameron got the first hint she's a lesbian the day before. The first paragraphs of the book paint the scene of Cameron's world as a child's world she made sense of and co-created with her friend Irene - their rituals to stay cool in hot weather without air conditioning or sit in the back of grandma's car pretending to be in the Grey Poupon commercial, their special drink of Ginger Ale and orange juice they call "cocktail hour," the meanings of the different places along Main St to them as kids (the market sells ice cream cones of Wilcoxson's ice cream, the banks give out dum-dum pops), how they turned Miss Scarlet from Clue into an inside joke, and so on. The mention of the funeral parlors could be foreshadowing here, although the reader already knows that Cameron's parents die that day. This early description also grounds the story in its place, eastern Montana, with references that people from there will know and outsiders won't (such as Wilcoxson's ice cream). It shows the closeness of Cameron and Irene, and how thoroughly intertwined their childhoods are with one another's. Irene is symbolic of childhood.
Before Cameron finds out her parents are dead, there are a few bits of foreshadowing. First, she notes how easy it was to promise Coach Ted she'd come to swim practice and focus on swimming the next day and it seemed like an easy promise to make. What's unstated is that the next day she couldn't go to swim practice because she'd just found out her parents died. The second is the man in a suit who buys the girls root beer and comments on how good the girls have it. This shows how easy and carefree her life is at this point, and it's all about to change, both because her parents die but also because she has to confront her sexuality.
There are three significant pieces of symbolism that are established in the first chapters: bubblegum, the death of Cameron's parents, and Quake Lake. The girls kiss and realize they are both queer and the next day they shoplift gum and kiss some more. You'll notice that gum comes up again every other time Cameron kisses a girl, showing that she feels her attraction to women is deviant, just like shoplifting gum is deviant. A passage that shows how the gum represents the deviance of her kissing girls, and how her realizing she likes girls is the end of her childhood is on p. 24: "I still think about him on the other side of that door all the time, even now. How I still had parents before that knock, and how I didn't that. Mr. Klauson knew that too; how he had to lift his calloused hand and take them away from me at eleven p.m. one hot night at the end of June - summer vacation, root beer and stolen bubble gum, stolen kisses - the very good life for a twelve-year-old..." [emphasis added]
When Cameron is taken home to find out that her parents are dead, she is afraid she's been found out as a lesbian and she is in trouble for it. She feels guilty when she finds out her parents are dead, perhaps because she feels responsible because God killed them off because she kissed a girl, or perhaps because she felt relieved when she found out they were dead and didn't find out she kissed a girl. The death of her parents comes up later, representing her guilty feelings about being a lesbian.
The passage that really spells out the symbolism of her parents' death and her feelings of guilt it represents is on p. 30: "I didn't know it then, but the sickness, the prickly flush of heat, and the feeling of swimming in a kind of blackness I couldn't have imagined, all the things I had done since I'd last seen my parents bobbing around me, lit up against the dark - the kisses, the gum, Irene, Irene, Irene - all of that was guilt: real, crushing guilt."
The third is Quake Lake. Cameron's mom was there with her friend Margot, a lesbian, the day of the 1959 earthquake. Margot's mom left before the quake, but Margot was hit by the quake and her brother was killed. The day after Cameron kisses a girl for the first time, her parents die there. It feels like there is something symbolic here but I am having a hard time putting my finger on it. When we first hear the Quake Lake story, we find out that Cameron's mom was 12, "just like us" as Cameron tells Irene (p. 18). At 12, Cameron's mom, who is straight, escaped a real earthquake at Quake Lake. When Cameron was 12 her mom died at Quake Lake the same time Cameron realized she's a lesbian, and its impact on her life was like an earthquake, ending her childhood and innocence. That's not unlike what happened to Margot at 12. Realizing you are gay is like an earthquake.
We also start to see characters' inner thoughts and feelings shown through what might appear to be insignificant details. When the two girls are trying to figure out how to talk about kissing (or kiss some more) and neither of them can, this is shown as an ant keeps trying to walk but gets blocked by the girls and their flip flops several times and has to go around and try again (p. 15).
Aunt Ruth: Aunt Ruth's entry is also significant. She calls Cameron "Cammie," which Cameron hates, and she tries to comfort her for her loss by talking about God, which is not at all comforting to Cameron. In both cases, she feels like she is not being seen or heard by Ruth, and we can see the early makings of the mismatch between the two of them and Ruth's lack of attunement to Cameron. We can also see that a bit when Ruth buys Cameron dresses for the funeral that don't look like anything Cameron would wear. Cameron says she feels like she guessed it was right for Aunt Ruth to be there, since they are family, but she hardly knows Ruth, and they don't have much of a relationship. She also doesn't have any opinions on Ruth's born again Christianity yet, even though she knows it's not the type of Christian her parents were. Mostly she's just accepting Ruth as she is and taking Ruth's totally tone deaf response to her grief in silence - not embracing it or pushing back against it, but just trying to do her own thing and stay out of Ruth's way as she does hers. This is how their relationship develops for a while, especially as Ruth finds a new career and a boyfriend to take up her time and keep her out of Cameron's hair.
Ruth is described as usually looking perfect, but when we meet her she looks like sad clown Ruth. The use of the word clown calls up the image of someone with a false emotion painted on their face - in this case a sad face. But if she usually doesn't look like a sad clown, perhaps her usual perfect appearance is a happy clown? That is, whatever is going on underneath for Ruth, perhaps usually she has a happy expression painted on her face as a clown would, but the happiness is fake and not reflective of what she feels inside. In any case, we find out soon that Ruth usually looks perfect, and her personality is described as being a cheerleader or Annette Funicello - a member of the Mickey Mouse Club. This gives the image of Ruth as perpetually perky and happy and wholesome, but possibly inauthentically so. To add to that, we soon find out about her NF, the condition in which she grows tumors all over her body all the time. The introduction of Ruth shows her as badly mismatched with Cameron, not at all responsive to Cameron's needs, and constantly (perhaps falsely) cheerful, but filled with tumors. Something is not right about Ruth, despite the appearance of perfection and cheerfulness on the outside.
The Burial at the Trash Can: Given Cameron's crushing guilt her feelings for Irene, she avoids her for days until Irene sends a card. The house is described as smelling of all of the flowers people sent, and it sounds almost suffocating, which is a metaphor for how Cameron feels there. When Irene sends her flowers and a card, she takes the card up to her room, shuts the door and "felt as criminal as [she] would have had it been Irene herself there with [her]" (p. 32). The card represents Irene. Cameron memorizes Irene's words and then instead of just throwing the card away, she takes it outside and buries it deep into a trash can filled with hot, stinking, rotting trash. This is referred to as a "burial." Cameron is trying to bury her feelings for Irene as if they are dead, or at least she wishes they were dead. But of course they aren't. After all, even with the card gone - so thoroughly gone as it is under that stinking, rotting trash - she's memorized all of Irene's words.
Cameron's Funeral Arrangements and New Religion: Left alone in the house, Cameron takes money from her dead father, the VCR and TV, and a photo of her mom at Quake Lake. Then she goes to rent Beaches. She is totally alone as she does this. Grandma and Aunt Ruth are out making funeral arrangements, and she refers to what she does as making funeral arrangements of her own. This shows how she is dealing with her grief in isolation and in parallel to her guardians. There are two important elements here: the photo and the movies.
Cameron takes a photo of her mom at age 12 - her age - at Quake Lake, less than 24 hours before the earthquake that did not kill her, and years before she actually died there. Cameron had a loving family and a time of innocence in her childhood, right up to this moment at age 12. Keeping the photo of her mom right at that age, a few hours before the earthquake, is keeping a tie to that time in Cameron's life when she was innocent and had parents and had no idea she was a few hours away from a metaphorical earthquake that ended her childhood and innocence. This is reinforced when we learn later that Cameron's mom looked like her in that photo (three years after their death, the day Cameron and Coley go with Grandma to the cemetery, when the girls go back to Cameron's room afterward). It's also a reminder that figuring out she is gay hit Cameron like an earthquake, just like it did to Margot, whereas Cameron's straight mom escaped.
Cameron puts the TV and VCR in her room and then goes to the video store to rent Beaches. She says she is looking for guidance in how to navigate the situation of losing her parents and even though it's fictional, Beaches is something. In light of what comes later, Cameron's never ending search for the few and far between movies with the slightest representation of lesbianism in them, I think a note about representation is important here. In that moment, Cameron was looking for representation of herself as a recent orphan. Later, she is looking for representation of herself as a lesbian. It's hard to even understand this if you haven't experienced it, the real toll it takes on you when you don't see yourself represented in pop culture and mainstream society - or as with lesbians in film, when you do see yourself represented its often as a stereotype, or a fantasy for straight people, or the butt of a joke, or through themes of oppression or sexuality as if the entire experience of being gay is having sex and facing homophobia and nothing else. When lesbians are represented in film, it's often clear the characters were written by straight people who never even bothered to consult a lesbian to make sure if their depiction is believable. A quick way to tell if any actual lesbians were involved in the making of the film is by looking at the character's fingernails. Any lesbian with an active sex life should not have long fingernails, but in movies they often do.
Cameron Post starts out in 1989, two years before the "lesbian classic" Fried Green Tomatoes came out. At the time, homosexuality was so taboo that the lesbian relationship in that film is only consummated symbolically through a food fight and their relationship is otherwise never acknowledged once. The Color Purple came out in 1985, and the lesbian relationship that is very clearly described in the book is portrayed as a platonic friendship in which the two women kiss on the mouth a few times in one scene. According to film at the time, lesbians almost did not even exist. And yet, with the half second kiss between Jodie Foster and someone else, or the more overt lesbian themes of Personal Best, Desert Hearts, and The Hunger, Cameron can see herself reflected at least a little bit in these films whereas she can't see herself reflected at all in Miles City. She's guilty and tried to bury the gay part of herself, but she's also seeking a connection to it, however small, through the movies she watches. Just like she was looking for something "official" to show her how to act and what to feel as she grieved her parents with Beaches, she is seeking the same about being gay with many of the other movies she watches.
When Cameron rents Beaches we also get a glimpse into how she didn't fit in as a queer girl in rural Montana, but how her parents had been accepting and loving and on her side. The woman at the video store was Cameron's teacher and she didn't like Cameron for failing to live up to hetero norms. When the teacher wrote a strange comment on Cameron's report card, Cameron's parents thought it was strange and funny. Even if the rest of Miles City didn't get Cameron, her parents did. Later, the person at the video store is a straight guy who is creepy in a sexually suggestive way to Cameron. It seems symbolic that as Cameron is seeking her connection to lesbians through the movies she rents at that store and mostly coming up short, to rent them she has to go through these two video store employees who are symbols of heteronormativity. Cameron is in a heteronormative environment seeking anything that will give her a glimpse of herself as a lesbian.
The period of time after Cameron's parents die is one in which she feels extreme alienation. Mostly it appears that her alienation is due to her status as an orphan - especially as everyone tries to extend kindness to her (the "orphan discount") and it makes her feel worse instead of better. It's possible that this feeling of alienation is simply the result of being an orphan but given the symbolism of her parents deaths and her discovery she's a lesbian, it's also possible that her alienation represents her alienation as a young lesbian in a town that has no place for one.
The Fair and the End of Childhood: It took me a long time to work out the symbolism of the fair. But if you consider it a metaphor for the end of her friendship with Irene, it makes sense. They "haunted the midway like ghosts... watching like we'd already seen everything there was to see but couldn't pull ourselves away." It's already over, but she can't let go. And then, as the girls go on the ferris wheel, she does. She and Irene keep touching knees, and for one full rotation they hold hands and pretend things are the same as before. Up on the ferris wheel they can see the entire layout of the area clearly from above, separate from it. And then as the friendship truly ends, Irene cries and cries and cries, and Cameron feels sick. With that, although the girls pretend everything is normal afterward, their friendship is truly done, for good.
I think the end of the friendship could represent two things. The first is the end of Cameron's innocence and childhood; the second is her attempt to end her feelings for girls. In this scene, it's the latter that seems more plausible. Cameron feels like kissing Irene resulted in the death of her parents, and she still has the feelings, and she doesn't want to. At this point, she's entirely separating herself from her lesbian feelings in real life, even though she's still watching movies with lesbians when she can find them. However, given the description of how the girls had "done up" the fair in the past, and how thoroughly their childhoods are intertwined, the fair might be the last gasp of childhood.
Margot: Margot's gay. She's a tennis player, which is not the gayest sport, but it reminds the reader of Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, both famous lesbian tennis players. She wears a watch that looks like a man's watch, and she takes Cameron out and does thing that violate hetero gender norms, like opening car doors for her and ordering her refills of her drink. She didn't want to wear a dress at Cameron's parents' wedding. She has an asymmetrical haircut. And she says she loved Cameron's mother. Her visit to Cameron shows how poorly she (and lesbians) fit in in Miles City as she makes reservations at a restaurant, which is not something anyone from there does, and her haircut is cited as "non-Miles City." Cameron doesn't realize Margot is gay, so it's never overtly stated in the book, but Cameron feels she could come out to Margot, and she doesn't want to. Cameron has an opportunity here to accept her sexuality, and she still chooses to reject it. Still, we can see that Margot is more attuned to Cameron than any other adult Cameron has met so far and makes Cameron feel comfortable. It's a shame for Cameron that Margot can't stay around, because Cameron's life might have unfolded differently if she had. Margot's closeness to Cameron's parents is also another sign that Cameron's parents, had they survived, would have accepted her sexuality - or at least accepted it more than Aunt Ruth does. I'm not sure, but Cameron secretly taking the photo of Margot at her parents' wedding might be a sign of Cameron kind of secretly holding on to her identity as a lesbian who doesn't fit straight gender norms. That photo was taken when Margot did not want to keep wearing a dress and Cameron's mom bribed her with champagne to do so. Cameron secretly stealing it might be showing the continued link between lesbians and deviance for Cameron.
The Dollhouse: Cameron's dad made her dollhouse for her 5th birthday. It's an "amazing" dollhouse, a scale model of a fancy house in San Francisco, and the outside is perfectly completed but the inside is unfinished. This represents Cameron. Her parents gave her an incredible start to life and a foundation of herself as a person, but they died before the job was complete. Now, as Cameron begins decorating the inside of the dollhouse herself, she's also forming herself into an adult, continuing the job her parents started, but on her own. What she puts into the house is creative and off-beat but also often involves deviance, as she steals some of the items she puts in there. The self Cameron is making doesn't fit societal norms and Cameron feels it's deviant. This is most clearly shown when she makes a gum wrapper rug because she's thinking of Irene. She's incorporating her feelings for girls into her self, but she still feels it is deviant like shoplifting gum.
It's also interesting that Aunt Ruth suggested giving away the dollhouse to charity and getting rid of it, and Cameron insists that it's hers: "My dad made it for me and I'm not giving it to some stranger," she says. Aunt Ruth wants Cameron to get rid of the self that her parents helped her create during the first 12 years of her life, and Cameron refuses to do so.
The Christmas Tree: Ruth lets Cameron keep some of her traditions until their first Christmas together. These traditions, like having a live Christmas tree and attending Cameron's family's church, are links Cameron has to her past with her parents, and also to the self that she was with them. Ruth is trying to change Cameron from how her parents raised her - first by wanting to get rid of the dollhouse, and now getting a fake tree, and switching to an evangelical church. It seems fitting that fake perfect Ruth wants a fake perfect tree, whereas Cameron's genuine but wonderfully imperfect mother loved having a real one.
Cameron doesn't like the fake tree, but her rejection of evangelical Christianity is less immediate and complete. She seems openminded to an extent, even though she knows it's not what her parents believed. This new version of Christianity comes with the first overt rejection of homosexuality Cameron confronts. She's always implicitly known that being gay wasn't accepted, but once she gets her new teen Bible from the evangelical youth group, she finds hard proof for the first time that - at least based on Ruth's version of Christianity - being gay is not OK. Throughout the book, Cameron doesn't fully buy into this point of view, but she doesn't fully reject it until the very end either.
Ruth's Sally Q Tools: This is an interesting view of gender roles and femininity. On one hand, using tools is stereotypically masculine. Selling tools for women is already violating traditional gender roles, but the tools Ruth is selling are needlessly gendered, reinforcing the strict gender binary that Ruth believes in. Perhaps it also shows something about Ruth's ideas about how she does her gender as a woman. She thinks she's doing gender so correctly that she can sell tools for women and help other women do their genders properly. She certainly wants to change how Cameron does her gender, because she thinks she's right and anyone who differs from her is wrong.
The Hospital: I wasn't sure what the hospital represented until I found a few passages that reveal it. Breaking in there is deviant, so that's important. The first time Cameron goes there with the boys, they are wandering around in the dark, in the basement, with a bad excuse of a flashlight that stops working about four minutes in. In light of what happens later, it feels like this is a glimpse into Cameron's subconscious and her feelings about her homosexuality. She's blundering through a basement without a light. Later, after she meets Lindsey, they go together to the key room and have their first kiss. At that point, Cameron has found the key and the fireworks the boys are setting off as she finds it are "the stuff of mushy movies when the main characters first kiss... rockets and starbursts." She's a lesbian. For real. But it's still deviant.
Lindsey: Irene was Cameron's childhood and innocent past. Lindsey represents Cameron's guide into the world of being a lesbian, her "personal lesbian guru." She likes to act superior and stay in the role of teacher or mentor, and Cameron doesn't have the same feelings for Lindsey that she had for Irene or will have for Coley, but Lindsey still helps Cameron understand that she's not alone and gives her hope that there's another part of the country (Seattle) where being gay is OK. She introduces Cameron to music, books, and music in lesbian culture. It's through Lindsey that Cameron fully commits to her identity as a lesbian instead of trying to bury her feelings. Gum comes up again when Lindsey initially asks Cameron if she would go to Pride with her and Cameron knows that a "yes" means coming out to Lindsey. Cameron says yes, but Lindsey's gum reminds us of Cameron's feelings that being gay is deviant.
At the end of the summer, just before Cameron begins high school and meets Coley Taylor, during her last scene with Lindsey, there's a storm coming. This is foreshadowing. In addition to the actual storm that happens one afternoon, there's a storm coming in the story.
Ray: Ray sells frozen food. The symbolism here is not something that would be easy to spot except Cameron explains that she's sentimental about frozen foods because she re-watched the Care Bears movie. I'm too lazy to spell out the entire complicated metaphor, particularly because I haven't seen the Care Bears movie since I was a small child, but it seems the Ray's frozen food job represents thawing Ruth's frozen heart. It's kind of an odd humanizing element to the book for Ruth, who mostly comes across as fake and perfect-looking and well-meaning but basically in Cameron's way since she can't love Cameron for who she really is. For Cameron, Ray mostly serves as a nice guy she has little to do with who (along with Ruth's Sally Q job) keeps Ruth out of her hair.
Coley Taylor: After Cameron has spent most of a semester staring at Coley in biology, she finally really meets her at church. The two girls, from the start, have great chemistry. Coley is sweet, and funny, and touches Cameron a lot, and puts her face close to her at times, and responds well to Cameron's sense of humor. She feels totally genuine, like she truly likes Cameron and isn't playing games or holding anything back, at least in the context of a friendship between two totally straight girls. Also, their friendship has a classic plotline from novels about teenage lesbians: Cameron's a tomboy who hangs out with the guys, and Aunt Ruth wants her to be more feminine, so she encourages Cameron's friendship with Coley. FYI to homophobic parents: Pushing your tomboy lesbian to hang out with her gay crush won't help in the way you intend it.
The sexual tension starts to heat up when Coley asks Cameron to go to prom with her on a straight double date with her boyfriend and a date Cameron needs to find. In that moment, there's gum again, and Coley keeps touching Cameron in ways that gets Cameron's attention but Coley doesn't notice. Lindsey gives the first foreshadowing about the trouble at is coming aside from the oncoming storm at the end of the summer. She warns Cameron that nothing good will come from pursuing a straight girl like Coley. Lindsey's instincts are reliable as Cameron falls for and pursues Coley.
Prom is the first time when a straight person (Jamie) tells Cameron he knows she's gay. As it happens, some drama kids are walking by and Cameron says they are like the chorus in her unfolding tragedy. That's yet another clue that things are not going well for her in the near future.
Bucking Horse Sale: We get some foreshadowing about Coley's relatives. First, Ty, her brother, makes Cameron uneasy for some reason. Second, although Mrs. Taylor keeps telling Cameron to call her by her first name, Cameron does not feel comfortable doing that. Something is not right between Cameron and either of them. The important parts all come after Cameron and Jamie have officially broken off whatever they were doing by making out occasionally and Jamie went off to find a straight girl. A storm is coming, both a literal one and a metaphorical one, and Cameron and Coley go to Coley's ranch. Cameron and Coley are in sync with one another, but when Coley tells her mother that Cameron said Bucking Horse was a "bitter mistress," Coley's mom doesn't like it, perhaps because it's too gay for a girl to refer to having a "mistress."
Their first kiss happens when Cameron is wearing Ty's boots and the girls are out feeding the cattle after the rain. They are listening to a very straight Tom Petty mix (that belongs to Ty) that Lindsey does not approve of because Tom Petty is a "chauvinist" with a "prurient" interest in teenage girls. This is a sign that Cameron and Coley's kiss is ill-fated. They listen to "The Waiting" several times and then "Free Fallin'." As they kiss, Ty's boots (on Cameron's feet) sink into the mud and Cameron is stuck. Once she's kissed Coley, she is stuck. The badness that is to come is coming. The fact that they were Ty's boots that got stuck and led to her fall (she literally falls over in the mud) and it's Ty's copy of "Free Fallin'" they are listening to foreshadow Ty's role in Cameron's downfall. So does Coley's role in Cameron's fall into the mud: Coley got scared when Cameron touches her and as she reacts to it, she knocks Cameron down. Afterwards, Coley retreats into straightness even though she liked the kiss, at least for a little while, and even the girls' friendship gets weird for a bit. After Cameron gets home, when she sees her grandma in her purple housecoat, she is reminded of the night her parents died. That reminds us of her guilt about kissing girls.
There's a bit of foreshadowing when Lindsey asks Cameron to come to Alaska with her and Cameron doesn't. Cameron says she wonders what would have happened if she had. She's letting us know that something big happens because she stayed in Miles City that summer. We get more foreshadowing that something big is coming when Cameron traces the four big things that happened that summer: Ruth and Ray got engaged; Mona Harris came out to her; their youth group at church gets a talk about gay conversion therapy; and Coley gets her own apartment. Those are the four ingredients leading us up to Cameron's downfall, although as was shown by the reference to a Greek tragedy and Cameron's boots getting stuck when she first kissed Coley, Cameron's fall was inevitable. She was already stuck, and it was going to happen.
Cameron and Coley: Their next kiss takes place after they visit the cemetery on the three-year anniversary of Cameron's parents' deaths. Gum appears before they kiss, as does the photo of Cameron's mom at age 12 at Quake Lake before the quake. All of this is heavily symbolic to remind us that Cameron still feels deviant and guilty. Adventures in Babysitting is playing on the TV in the background. I don't know the movie well enough to make anything of it, but I wouldn't be surprised if the movie choice is meaningful.
The night Cameron and Coley lose their virginity to each other, it's "magma hot" in Coley's apartment. The plot is very, very hot right now, and there's a lot of pressure that is about to blow. We get an immediate sign that it's not meant to be. When Cameron arrives at Coley's apartment, a Trisha Yearwood song "about being in love with a boy" is playing. This is not the place or time for lesbian love. Cameron tries to change that by putting on The Hunger, a movie she got from Lindsey. There's no gum this time and no reference to Cameron's dead parents, and instead of thinking about guilt and deviance, Cameron is trying to follow a seduction suggestion by her personal lesbian guru. She and Coley have sex, but Coley gets upset when Cameron confesses she loves her. Cameron has previously said that she thinks Coley has convinced herself that their relationship was some sort of college experimentation come early. It's not the sex that freaks Coley out, but Cameron's confession of love.
The next day after her disastrous night with Coley, Cameron is kind of flipping through different options and not at peace with any of them: she looks at dresses for Ruth's wedding (a symbol of straightness, see below) and doesn't see herself in any of them, so she tries to listen to songs from Lindsey (a symbol of lesbianism) and can't get into those, so then she puts on a Tom Petty song (a symbol of straightness again) and nothing is really right.
As was hinted at before, Ty is the instrument of Cameron's downfall. Coley tells Ty what happened that night, and the next day Coley goes to Mrs. Taylor (who Cameron never felt comfortable around) at Ty's urging, and they go to the evangelical church. The day after that Pastor Crawford goes to Aunt Ruth, who is full of tumors under her beautiful fake exterior and doesn't get Cameron at all, and Aunt Ruth puts Cameron in conversion therapy.
Ruth and Ray's Wedding: This is a symbol of heterosexuality. At first Ruth plans it and set the date, feeling certain that heterosexuality was safe. She gives Cameron a catalog of maid of honor dresses and circles the ones she thinks Cameron might like, and Cameron says she can tell Ruth was trying to find dresses she'd feel comfortable in, but she can't see herself in any of them. Ruth is trying to make heterosexuality work for Cameron, and Cameron doesn't feel like it's a fit. When Ruth finds out Cameron is gay, she postpones the wedding. Heterosexuality is still the long term plan - it's just delayed a bit. After Cameron spends a semester at God's Promise, Ruth reschedules the wedding and wants Cameron to be maid of honor. She's hoping that heterosexuality is safe again, and Cameron is on board with it after a semester of attempting to pray away the gay. Cameron, significantly, refuses to play along. She'll go to the wedding, but she won't be maid of honor, and she'll wear her God's Promise uniform, showing that she's still present in the hetero world but she's living her truth: she's there as a gay person being forced into a doomed attempt at straightness.
God's Promise: Cameron's introduction to God's Promise is seeing the serenity prayer on her door, posted there by her roommate "the Viking Erin." Is being gay something that you need to change or accept? The prayer asks for the wisdom to know the difference. That sets the tone for what Cameron will be doing there, and for the differences between Cameron and Erin. Cameron soon realizes that the value of being here is learning the stories of other people like her and not being alone anymore. Through meeting other kids like her, Cameron can make sense of herself.
Jane Fonda's first name is after two women - one grandmother who committed suicide and another who survived breast cancer. It seems like her character can go either way. The book hints at similarities between Jane and Jesus, like both of them being born in a barn, or having Jesus and the celebrity Jane Fonda on the cover of the same magazine. Cameron says she likes following Jane (on a hike), and Jane also gives her a literal tour of God's Promise, and later helps Cameron navigate away from Promise to Quake Lake for the book's heavily symbolic ending and to freedom. In that way, Jane is like Cameron's guide and savior. However, it's Cameron's own decision to leave Promise, not Jane's. Jane also offers Cameron a lot of trustworthy advice, like telling her to be "wary" of Mark. She's also the resident weed farmer. Cameron, Jane, and Adam need to deaden themselves a bit with weed to get through their time at Promise and Jane's the one who provides it. I can't work out why Jane takes Polaroids of everyone (usually candids) but rarely shows them to anyone. It must mean something. I've got no idea if Jane's background story about her life on the commune, history of playing doctor, accident that killed her friend and mentor, and amputated leg mean anything either.
Erin's another one I don't totally understand. She's a huge fan of the Minnesota Vikings, but I think there's something more symbolic in the way she's referred to often as "the Viking Erin." She's incredibly innocent - smelling of fabric softener, described as round and soft with bouncy curls and a giggle. She's entirely sincere in all ways, and she's totally bought into the idea of conversion therapy. She's trying to improve herself to fit into a straight, Christian society but also to fit into a society that values women who are thin and fit. Perhaps her daily Christian aerobics practice is symbolic for how she is trying to reform her body to make it fit with Christianity through daily practice in other ways as well. She wants Cameron as her partner on both of these reform efforts. Cameron joins her for the aerobics, but only gives the appearance of joining her in trying to pray herself straight. And yet, Erin does not end up straight. She ends up having sex with Cameron in their dorm room. The aerobics worked, the prayers didn't. Erin, who put the serenity prayer on her door, does not seem to have a good grasp on what she needs to change and what she needs to accept.
Reverend Rick has no sense of smell. Maybe that's why he can't smell bullshit and he believes in conversion therapy. He seems like a good guy. He's genuine and loving and well-meaning but very misdirected. As Jane tells it, Rick is a decent cook but he buys the cheap scratchy toilet paper. He's providing for the kids' material needs with food but his toilet paper purchases literally scratch up the kids' sex organs. There's a metaphor.
Lydia, on the other hand, is mean-spirited and abusive. She's very controlling not just about every aspect of the kids' lives but also how they express themselves (for example, not allowing Cameron to go by Cam, not allowing Adam to chew on things when she catches him at it, not allowing Cameron to take off a layer of clothing when she's hot, not allowing the kids to call themselves "homosexuals," and so on.) When Cameron gives her a short, one-word answer to a question, instead of taking a kinder approach of saying something like "Good, could you expand on that?," she scolds Cameron for her brief answer and forces her to give a longer, more precise one. That kind of nitpicking makes the point that the kids are not acceptable as they are, not just because they are gay, but because to Lydia every little detail about the kids is wrong.
The Dollhouse, Again: Cameron's dollhouse is back at home in Miles City, and she hopes Aunt Ruth didn't throw it out. Remember, the dollhouse is a symbol of Cameron's self. Her father gave her an incredible start to it and she's been working on it by herself since her parents died. At Promise, she's away from it, unable to continue building herself. Jane calls what happens at Promise forgetting yourself. Cameron calls it plastic living, or living in a diorama, and then compares it to a prehistoric insect preserved in amber if it were still alive. Cameron is like the insect that was born and lived in an earlier time and is now here in the present in a world entirely separate and foreign compared to her past. She mentions how she has nobody around who knew her before to remind her of that past. Just like the dollhouse that is back in Miles City where Cameron cannot work on it, Cameron's self from her past is not something she has access to, not something she can work on here, and she's existing in a sort of stagnation, almost like that perfectly preserved insect in amber.
Still, Cameron decides to try to build a new self here - a new dollhouse-like project. Since she doesn't have access to her beautiful dollhouse her dad started for her, she gets what she can get, some used buckets from a Christian creamery that she steals. Building her self here is deviant and forbidden, and she's stuck using something not very good but very Christian as a base for it. She tries to get a collection of materials to work on it, including some markers she tries to shoplift. Erin prevents her from shoplifting the markets, and she gets in trouble for it. Building her self here with the good materials she wants requires breaking the rules, and Erin and then Rick and Lydia prevent her from doing it. When Cameron tells Lydia about the dollhouse, Lydia sees it as a manifestation of Cameron's sinfulness. Lydia thinks that Cameron building herself as she sees fit is sinful.
The Lights in the Wind: When Cameron goes home for winter break, during one night Ruth and Ray are gone and she's home alone with Grandma. Grandma, although deaf, truly loves Cameron. At first it seems like Grandma is as anti-gay as Ruth. However, I think there might be some symbolism in the letter and care package she sends Cameron. Grandma is diagnosed with diabetes around the time of Bucking Horse Sale, which is also when Cameron first kisses Coley. Grandma has always been loving to Cameron, and she has a sweet tooth. I see her love for sugar as perhaps symbolic for her sweetness for Cameron. She sends Cameron homemade brownies and blondies along with a letter saying that it was difficult for her to bake with sugar without eating anything and the confesses she did eat some of it. She seems to be unable to help being loving and sweet to Cameron even if she's not supposed to. Grandma's also the one who hides the package from Margot so that Ruth won't see it and gives it to Cameron. Although Grandma doesn't know it, it contains $300 cash, which Cameron uses to escape God's Promise. Grandma's inability to deny love to Cameron helps enable Cameron's escape.
That night when they are home alone together, they hear a sound outside, and then they go watch a strand of lights that came loose from the house and flies around in the wind. Ray put up the lights and the next day when he gets home, he nails down that escaped strand again. It feels like the lights that remain lit even as they are tossed around by the weather symbolizes Cameron, whose spirit remains bright and strong despite everything that is happening to her. Cameron steals a few lights to put in her Christian buckets that serve as the substitute for her dollhouse project at Promise.
Quake Lake, Again: Quake Lake symbolizes the earthquake that realizing you're gay felt like in the lives of Margot and Cameron at age 12. When Cameron got dragged off to Promise by Ruth, she still had not come to terms with that earthquake. Promise is only a few miles from Quake Lake, and while being there is painful of course, it allows Cameron to examine and come to terms with being gay. After Mark hurts himself, Cameron almost fully rejects the program at Promise. She never bought into it before, but she was also never really at peace with being gay either. Now she calls Promise abusive and she decides to leave, but at the same time she sort of really gives it a chance. She seems very ambivalent about giving it a chance. She starts cooperating with Lydia and Rick so they won't interfere with or suspect her plans to escape, and she says that just being totally honest with them for a change is easier than the alternative. However, she also says something about wanting to really give the conversion therapy a try before running away from it, which makes it sound like she has mostly rejected it but not fully.
During her last weeks at Promise, Cameron does an independent study on the earthquake at Quake Lake. She really gets to the bottom of it, studying every detail. Symbolically, she's studying and gaining an understanding of herself as a lesbian. She rediscovers her link to Margot, a survivor of the actual earthquake and symbolic one too. At last, Cameron, Adam, and Jane go to Quake Lake and Cameron does a sort of ritual, going into the water naked with a candle and fully submerging herself. At last, she's at peace with her sexual identity. She also finds closure with her parents and resolves the guilt she felt for being relieved that they were dead because it meant they wouldn't find out she kissed Irene. She's not alone either. Cameron the orphan was almost entirely alone as a queer person in Miles City since she kissed Irene and her parents died, and she now has a family of choice, her fellow queers who also aren't accepted by their biological families. The last line of the book is a full rejection of conversion therapy. Cameron's future is not beneath (as in the iceberg bullshit at God's Promise) but beyond, beyond, beyond.