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.