Camp Girls: Fire­side Lessons in Friend­ship, Courage, and Loyalty

  • Review
By – November 13, 2020

Forty years after her own camper days, Iris Kras­now returned to Camp Agawak, an all-girls camp in Wis­con­sin, to revive the camper mag­a­zine that laid the seeds for her career in jour­nal­ism. The expe­ri­ence of return­ing to her child­hood camp awak­ened her to all that she gained from a life­time of camp sum­mers, span­ning her youth­ful days as a camper and coun­selor to work­ing on the staff of her sons’ all-boys camp. Min­ing her own mem­o­ries and those of oth­er women who attribute their years at camp to their adult suc­cess­es, Kras­now con­tends that sum­mers at camp turn girls into strong, ambi­tious, empa­thet­ic, and hap­py adults.

Camp Girls is a nos­tal­gic ram­ble for any­one who ever attend­ed sleep­away camp. From the smell of the pine trees, to the unfor­get­table songs and cheers, to the ruth­less com­pe­ti­tion of camp sports, Kras­now evokes the cul­ture of camp. Agawak is not a Jew­ish camp, although most of the campers, when she attend­ed, were. In empha­siz­ing the longevi­ty of camp tra­di­tions, which span gen­er­a­tions, camp becomes some­thing of a reli­gion in itself; a place where every­one is fam­i­ly, all speak the same lan­guage, and creeds are sung daily.

With the nos­tal­gia, how­ev­er, comes a view of camp through rose-col­ored glass­es. As one Agawak alum says, We came back from camp dif­fer­ent peo­ple, nicer peo­ple, more patient peo­ple, more capa­ble peo­ple.” In these sto­ries, campers are almost always sup­port­ive, kind, and able to over­come dif­fer­ences. Kras­now skirts over painful mem­o­ries of girls who suf­fered from eat­ing dis­or­ders or bul­ly­ing. One friend reminds Kras­now that they were part of a dev­il­ish girl gang that locked a cab­in­mate in the clos­et. We said pro­fuse I’m sor­rys’ to her at a camp reunion decades lat­er.” One won­ders what that cabinmate’s camp mem­oir might be like.

Kras­now also ana­lyzes the ways in which camp has changed to adapt to the needs of con­tem­po­rary chil­dren. When Kras­now was young, in the pre-Title IX era, girls got their only taste of com­pet­i­tive ath­let­ics at camp. Now, she writes, campers often need a break from the high-stakes cal­en­dar of youth ath­let­ics. One ben­e­fit of a camp sum­mer in the mod­ern era? Leav­ing elec­tron­ic devices and social media behind. There’s no doubt that sum­mers in nature, one hun­dred years ago and now, can help chil­dren devel­op resilience and independence.

Iron­i­cal­ly, Krasnow’s book was released just before the sum­mer of 2020, the first sum­mer in liv­ing mem­o­ry when most camps did not open due to the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic. Camp Girls is a reminder of what our chil­dren missed out on this past summer.

Rachel Mann’s debut nov­el, On Black­ber­ry Hill, won the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award for Young Adult Lit­er­a­ture in 2016.

Discussion Questions