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  • Children’s Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp
  • Paula Petrik
Children’s Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp. By Leslie Paris (New York: New York University Press, 2008. 368 pp.).

To remember summer camp is to recollect taking the the Northern Pacific Railroad’s North Coast Limited across Montana with my cousin, Victoria, to Missoula, catching the camp station wagon to Polson, and finally driving down the dirt road to Camp Marshall on the shores of Flathead Lake. Recalling Camp Marshall also brings to mind cabin clean-up competition, endless hours swimming, the arcane lyrics to campfire songs—“two, two, the lily white boys clothed all in green-o”—, key chain craft projects, the Dream Island swim and, of course, talent night. While Camp Marshall was founded in 1947, a few short years after Leslie Paris’ chronology ends, it retained all the characteristics and tensions explicated in Children’s Nature.

The first half of Children’s Nature examines the early development of summer camps in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries. Initially aimed at developing “manly” boys, summer camps soon served many constituencies: girls, religious groups, youth organizations, and the children of the working class or poor. No matter their clientele, summer camps emphasized “group living away from home but under adult supervision and guidance, outdoor activities, regular evening campfires, a greater appreciation for the outdoors and tests of skill and independence”—the most ubiquitous skill being swimming. The second half of the book explores the circumstances that challenged summer camps in the inter-war period. First, shifting economic circumstances forced the closure, consolidation, or transformation of many summer camps. Second, summer camps worked to combine modern experiences—movie showings, for example, and nostalgic experiences—living in tents, for instance, in a world that was increasingly commercialized. Finally, summer camp personnel also responded to changing racial definitions and a more “child-centered” educational ideology. In the end, according to Paris, summer camps, while they were not bereft of adult ideas and control, promoted children’s agency and self-determination to a larger degree than other children’s spaces. Summer camps, in short, provided an important [End Page 506] transformative space for a significant minority of children and were themselves altered in the process.

Nature’s Children is a meticulously researched; few, if any summer camps, escaped scrutiny. It is also a carefully written, gracefully combining the voices of both adults and children from a wide variety of backgrounds and dispositions, into a readable narrative and analysis. Attentive to the nuances of her evidence, Paris successfully argues her case. (Some readers might view the discussion of race in Chapter 6 as a bit predictable and slightly belabored, but the discussion does try to make sense of the strange amalgam of summer camp minstrel shows and Native American culture.) That cavil aside, make no mistake: this is an excellent book and should find a place in the history of childhood. Paris’ work, moreover, underscores the notion that at a point in their lives, children begin to build a world separate from their parents, a place and time with its own history, decision-making, and secrets.

One final note. Readers often find interesting connections to an entirely different historical narrative in the oddest places. Paris includes in her discussion mention of Camp Andree Clark, a New York Girl Scout facility founded by former Montana Senator W. A. Clark and his wife, Anna, in memory of their daughter. Most historians who have written about W. A. Clark, I would venture to say, have been wholly unaware of the daughter’s death or the camp. That the Clarks chose to fund a Girl Scout camp is, however, in keeping with their social ambitions and their predilection for funding projects outside the state that provided their fortune.

Paula Petrik
George Mason University


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pp. 506-507
Launched on MUSE
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