In the Acknowledgements section at the end of “Things I Can't Forget,” author Miranda Kenneally writes, “To me, nothing was scarier than understanding that my truth wasn’t everyone else’s truth. It took a while, but I discovered that’s okay—it’s better if I do the things I want to do and believe what I want to believe. I hope you find your truth.”
That’s the theme of this young adult novel about 18-year-old Kate Kelly, lifelong church attender, talented artist, and soon-to-be camp counselor at Cumberland Creek (Christian) Camp. Kate is carrying a huge load of guilt into the summer over her betrayal of her own moral standards in helping her best friend, Emily, in a crisis.
When Kate and Matt, the first and only boy who has ever kissed her, become re-acquainted as they serve together as camp counselors, Kate becomes even more confused about what her standards really are and what it means to act like a Christian.
“Things I Can’t Forget” is the third book in the Hundred Oaks series by Miranda Kenneally. It was preceded by “Catching Jordan,” about a girl who is the star quarterback of her high school football team, and “Stealing Parker,” about another student at Hundred Oaks High School who becomes a new person when her mother deserts the family. All of Kenneally’s books are set in the fictional small town of Hundred Oaks, Tennessee, and each focuses on a different set of characters, so they’re more like a loosely bound collection than a series.
The characters in this novel are realistic. Kate struggles with the temptation to compromise her beliefs, and she asks the questions and deals with the doubts that all of us have as we grow into our own relationship with God. The problem is, and it’s a common problem, Kate has nowhere to go with her questions and struggles. She has no trusted adult Christians in her life to whom she can go with her questions, and somehow, in all those years of churchgoing, no one has taught her (or she hasn’t learned) to go to the Bible for counsel and strength.
Matt is believable, too, as the boyfriend who’s kind and gentle, but who also wants to have sex with the girl he’s dating. Kate is on her own to decide what to do and what to believe, and by the end of the book she manages to hang on to a threadbare kind of faith and moral guide that’s right for her, but not much use to anyone else.
The characters are well drawn, but the setting seems a little off-kilter. Cumberland Creek Camp is supposed to be a Christian camp, but the college-age camp counselors are all involved in sleeping together, hooking up, and making out—a lot. Some of the counselors believe in God, but others say that they’re just there for the paycheck.
Maybe times have changed, but don’t most Christian camps require camp counselors to profess faith in Christ and adhere to certain moral standards at least while on the job? And don’t most Christian camps exist to facilitate an encounter with God and with biblical truth for the children who attend? Cumberland Creek Camp seems mostly concerned with children encountering nature, sports, camping skills, and arts and crafts. There’s no camp pastor or adult authority figure or even religious counselor at this camp, a staffing deficiency that reinforces the idea that young people must fabricate their own religious and moral truth by themselves.
The book manages to hit all the hot-button issues—homosexuality, abortion, premarital sex, even evolution—and to intimate or flat-out preach that whatever you believe about these issues may be true for you, but not necessarily true for everyone else. But can a subjective, true-for-me-but-not-for-you truth really be called truth at all? The word “truth” itself becomes meaningless in such a relativistic philosophy.
Kate also begins to practice situational ethics as she lies to protect a friend, and helps another friend commit what Kate believes is serious sin, because Kate wants to be viewed as loving and supportive. The entire novel is an exercise in greying and blurring biblical truth and objective moral standards.
Sympathetic characters and authentic ethical dilemmas notwithstanding, “Things I Can’t Forget” fails as a story because it goes for the easy answer. “You have your truth and I have mine” isn’t really an answer at all, and as a foundation for fiction or for life, such relativism is inadequate and ultimately hopeless.
Image copyright Sourcebooks Fire. Review copy purchased on Amazon.
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