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John Dalton's Haunting "The Inverted Forest"

July 01, 2011
John Dalton's new novel "The Inverted Forest" is a haunting tale of the disturbing events of one summer at a camp in the Missouri Ozarks.

Shortly before the season begins, all the counselors at Kindermann Forest Summer camp are fired. New counselors are quickly hired, but their training is severely abbreviated. The counselors are surprised when the campers who arrive for the first two weeks of the summer are not children, but developmentally disabled adults from the state mental hospital.

Individual failings and circumstances at the camp combine and lead to tragedy. The violent incident is examined from several vantage points. Three characters in the story provide their own perspective both during that summer and after 15 years have passed.

Within the story, Dalton explores the theme of the ways in which appearances and reality differ. He also examines what one character calls "unwise longings" and the many ways human desire becomes dangerous.

One of the newly hired camp counselors is Wyatt Huddy. Before coming to Kindermann Forest Summer Camp, he lives and works at the Salvation Army in Jefferson City, Mo. Previously Wyatt lived with his abusive older sister on their family farm. Wyatt has a startling facial deformity caused by a genetic syndrome. He is not mentally disabled, but his appearance suggests otherwise to many.

Wyatt is kind and shy and proves to be a responsible and conscientious steward of his adult campers. Although he is mistaken for one of the state mental hospital patients by some, he is not resentful.

Rather than dwelling on his many misfortunes, Wyatt empathizes with others. When Wyatt meets anyone for the first time, he is aware of the distress his appearance causes. "What he always felt in these strained circumstances was a tenderness so acute it nearly pierced his heart." Wyatt's kind heart and earnest nature contribute to awful events at the center of the story.

Schuller Kindermann is the owner and director of the camp. He is 78, a bachelor, and started the camp with his twin brother, Sandie, decades ago. Kindermann has a somewhat fussy and rigid personality that is reflected in his hobbies.

Readers first observe Kindermann at his drafting table working on what he calls foldout paper cards. He cuts and creases paper with meticulous care to form three dimensional representations. He and his brother also construct an elaborate model railroad layout representing a miniaturized world.

He tells the camp nurse about his hopes for Kindermann Forest Summer Camp. "I always had it in my mind that I'd make a camp for children who liked to sit someplace quiet and make beautiful things."

Because of Kindermann's longing to make the world tidy and manageable, he ignores the messier, more volatile realities at the camp. This inattention proves to be unwise and unsafe.

Harriett Foster is the only African-American employee at the camp. As the camp nurse, she is responsible for distributing medications and administering First Aid. She is unmarried and has her young son James with her at the camp. Like Wyatt Huddy, she is hardworking and sincere. Although she earns the trust of her fellow employees, she feels a certain distance from them.

As a nurse, she is watchful and observant. When Harriett concludes that something sinister is afoot at the camp, she hesitates to seek help from her fellow employees. The one person she can confidently ask for help is Wyatt Huddy.

Dalton presents uncomfortable, even shocking topics with great sensitivity. He describes the physical appearance of the disabled campers with unsparing detail, and he also bears witness to their human dignity. "But up close you noticed how each man or woman had gone inward and found a perch – unsteady maybe, or tilted, but still a perch – from which to peer out past the spasms and tics and whatever odd shapes their bodies had grown into."

John Dalton lives in St. Louis and teaches in the MFA Writing Program at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. His 2004 novel, "Heaven Lake," received much praise. Dalton's literary talents are again evident in "The Inverted Forest." It is a suspenseful and imaginative novel.

Dalton will discuss and sign "The Inverted Forest" at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 21 at the Headquarters branch of St. Louis County Library, 1640 S. Lindbergh Blvd. Call 994-3300 for more information.

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