The Inverted Forest, 2011
Summer, 1996, at Kindermann Forest Camp in rural Missouri. The elderly camp director finds his counselors swimming naked two days before camp is to open and fires all of them. As a result, new counselors must be hired and brought to camp. One of them is Wyatt Huddy, a genetically disfigured young man who has been living in a Salvation Army facility. All his life, large, gentle, diligent Wyatt has been misjudged because of his physical appearance. Along with the other new counselors he arrives ready to care for children. To their astonishment, they learn that for the first two weeks of the camping season they will be responsible for 104 severely developmentally disabled adults, all of them wards of the state.
In this world away from the world, the new counselors and disabled campers begin to reveal themselves. Most are well-intentioned, others unprepared. Some harbor dangerous inclinations. Soon Wyatt is called upon to prevent a terrible tragedy. In doing so, he commits an act whose repercussions will alter his own life and the lives of the other Kindermann Forest staff members for years to come.
Vivid, absorbing, compassionate, and highly original, The Inverted Forest is an impressive second act from a notable new writer.
John Dalton’s masterly, deeply humane second novel offers old-fashioned Updikean pleasures: emotionally complex characters, gorgeously tuned sentences, and a briskly paced plot. We’re at a Missouri sleep-away camp in the summer of 1996, and the straitlaced camp owner has impulsively fired his entire staff of counselors for a nighttime episode of drunken skinny dipping. He repopulates on short notice but tells none of his new hires that during the first week of their summer they'll be responsible for a group of severely disabled adult campers. Dalton handles these men and women—wards of the state, unable to care for themselves in even the most rudimentary ways—with astonishing deftness, lending them a wholeness and dignity even as he communicates how disquieting their appearance and chaotic behavior can be. Suspense is generated as two counselors, a swaggeringly confident lifeguard and a young man who bears a physical disfigurement of his own, proceed along a collision course. A well-meaning action by the camp nurse, Harriet Foster, Dalton's most empathetic creation, precipitates an act of violence with piercingly sad consequences. This is among the best and most affecting novels of the year.
The Daily Beast
An odd, absorbing follow-up to an award-winning debut distinguishes crucial degrees of humanity and affliction among the community at a Missouri summer camp where a convergence of staff and campers leads to tragedy. In a patient display of skill, Dalton (Heaven Lake, 2004) delivers an original drama set at Kindermann Forest Summer Camp in the Ozarks, owned and managed by Schuller Kindermann, whose idiosyncratic standards and wholesale dismissal of the 1996 camp counselors set events in train. Hastily hiring a new crew, including Wyatt Huddy, 23 and suffering from a facial deformity indicating Apert syndrome, Schuller omits to tell his replacement team that for the first two weeks the camp will be filled not by children but handicapped adults from the local hospital. With measured pace Dalton depicts the impact of coping with 104 variously disturbed patients on the under-equipped counselors and staff, including Christopher Waterhouse, a seemingly charming but possibly flawed counselor. When camp nurse Harriet Foster realizes Christopher’s true nature she calls on Wyatt for help, an action that will have consequences down the decades. Dalton’s expert control of his material is impressive. His conclusion, set 15 years later, tenderly resolves both the moral and personal aspects of the story. Dealing carefully with controversial material, this is a fully populated, humane yet largely unsentimental narrative of lingering impact.
This novel, by the author of the divine "Heaven Lake," takes place at a Missouri summer camp in 1996. Now erase from your mind any quaint notions you might have about summer camp, because this one has become a mad house. The campers are state-mental-hospital patients on a two-week hiatus. The counselors and other staff are also in various states of psychological disabilities. There's menace afoot in this world of distorted bodies and lost minds, but there are also two achingly noble heroes. Mr. Dalton's prose is polished and crisp but unhurried. As ruthlessly blunt as his descriptions of the characters' deformities are, he clearly feels warmly toward all but one.
The Wall Street Journal
A story set at a summer camp can go a number of different ways. The Inverted Forest—a gripping, tender, and at times disturbing tale—takes the road less traveled. It's the summer of 1996, and a small group of inexperienced counselors find themselves unprepared to care for more than 100 severely developmentally disabled adult campers from a state facility. A shocking act of violence will affect the young staff for years to come, and Dalton nimbly delves into his characters' perspectives, uncovering past secrets and future dreams (and eventual disappointments). While some of what's described is anything but pleasant, reading it certainly is.
…The first half of Dalton's book, set in 1996, is gorgeously written. Dalton introduces Wyatt with such care that it is impossible not to empathize with him. Seemingly without family, he lives and works at a Salvation Army store, where he imbues emotional significance into each donated article: "Sometimes the most inconsequential items could provoke him: a shoelace, for example, made in 1953 and perfectly sealed inside its paper and cellophane wrapper. What modest hopes its maker had once had for it. A shoelace. And what a sharp pang of regret for Wyatt to toss it forever unused into the Dumpster." Wyatt's story bears some similarities to familiar coming-of-age camp narratives, and Dalton's lush descriptive passages are sure to evoke fond memories of that time. But then Dalton gives his plot a vicious, chilling twist — and abruptly breaks away to Part Two, set 15 years later…. And though I was slightly suspicious of Dalton's motives for the rest of the book, I admire the decision to tell the rest of Wyatt's story in this multiperspective way, and applaud his treatment of difficult subject matter without a shred of mawkishness.
The Associated Press
This is, as Dalton’s title indicates, summer camp turned on its head. Working with a group of misfits, Dalton suggests a quieter, less comic John Irving. He extends compassion to both campers and staff, including kind-hearted nurse Harriet Foster. It’s Harriet’s pivotal decision to send Wyatt to prevent an assault on a camper that leads to a shocking act with tragic consequences. Throughout, Dalton plays with his theme of inversion—the ugliness that hides behind a handsome face, wrongs done in the name of right—and challenges readers to determine which way is up. The attendant quandaries linger long after the last page is turned.
A layered consideration of what happens when intentions good and bad collide…tearing suspense…intelligent insight."
John Dalton’s follow-up to his stunning debut, Heaven Lake, is suspenseful, lyrical and more than a little haunting.
The Inverted Forest is a magnificent novel, a true literary achievement that left me awestruck and breathless. It moves with a strange, eerie sense of dread, and it's full of suspense, but what impressed me most of all was the depth of John Dalton's insight into his characters. The chorus of narrators that make up this novel are drawn with such wisdom, compassion and kindness, the pages nearly seem to glow. I loved this book."
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Here is a novel of immense insight and humanity by a fiercely-focused writer who can be exciting, tender and unnervingly candid all at once. Dalton’s summer camp narrative proceeds with a grand inevitability. Its resolution is subtle, joyful and deeply satisfying. It has to be my Novel of the Year.
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