Jeremy struggles to write his dissertation on the Amish and the laws of expulsion. How does someone, excluded entirely from the only community they have ever known, live the rest of their life? After extensive interviews with Beulaha young woman banishedJeremy is no closer to understanding her choice than he is to his own peculiar exile.
Camp Ironwood, set in the Vermont woods, is more than a summer distraction for restless adolescent boysit is a place to belong. And not unlike the Amish community, it is a place where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. For Jeremy, first as a camper and later as the co-director, the usual camp activities become their own kind of ritual that binds the community. But when he is blindsided by the seductive charm of Max, a fourteen-year-old boy from Manhattan, all arms and legs and attitude, Jeremy must confront his desires, and worse yet, uncover the dark secrets of his beloved Camp Ironwood.
In the powerful and daring novel Avoidance, Lowenthal elegantly draws unexpected parallels between the Amish and Camp Ironwood. By doing so, he ingeniously explores an age-old dilemma: individual desires versus the good of a community.
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About the Author
Michael Lowenthal is the author of a previous novel, The Same Embrace, and is editor of many nonfiction collections. He currently teaches writing at Boston College.
Read an Excerpt
By Michael Lowenthal
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2002 Michael Lowenthal
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTry to imagine not even knowing how to fall, because a hand was always, always there to catch you. Two sisters, five brothers, a hundred cousins. At her one-room Amish school, built on Uncle Christian's farm, a third of the pupils shared her surname. Her plain, aproned dresses and organdy prayer caps were her sisters' hand-me-downs, sewn by their mother. The clothes of every girl she knew were stitched identically, right down to the width of their Kapp seams.
But that was Beulah Glick's life before. What I wanted to know was why she'd left. How?
We were sharing a booth at the Plain & Fancy Diner, in blink-and-miss-it Gap, Pennsylvania. My first field interview, four years ago. Twenty-five and enthused about my new research topic, I'd read Hostetler, Kraybill, Huntington; I'd browsed the Pequea Bruderschaft Library. I'd never spoken to someone "in the ban."
Despite Indian-summer heat I was dressed in blue chinos and a buttoned poly shirt that showed my sweat - not too city-slick, not too academic. Beulah sat rigid, arms locked to her sides, as though the booth were a plunging roller coaster. She wore a gray blouse and a brown knee-length skirt, misfitting store-bought clothes. Her hair was still yanked back, Amish-style, from a center part. The bald streak from years of tightening looked painful.
I ordered the farmer's special: three pancakes, three eggs, a side of scrapple. (In Lancaster County, appetite triumphs diplomas.) Beulah asked for coffee - no sugar, no cream - and, as an afterthought, two eggs. Waiting for the food, she barely spoke. Shyness around an unfamiliar man? Maybe shame? Or the meek temper of Gelassenheit. It's the personal submission the Amish strive for - the self-denial for community's sake - and a lack of it was Beulah's supposed crime. To me, she could hardly have seemed more yielding. When her eggs came, she only poked them with her fork.
I can't bring myself to touch my food, either. Why'd I bother smuggling it into the library? The air in here, freeze-dried, feels worse than outside's scorch. Saturday evening. Most of Harvard's fled.
Congealing in Styrofoam, shrimp pad thai fouls my carrel; Thai iced tea glares the shade of fake tans. And what I'm craving, believe it or not, is a hot dog. A humble hot dog, third-degreed on a stick. Let it fall from the stick, even; spice it strong with ash and mulch. I'd eat it anyway. That's the spirit - summer camp!
Who'd have thought I'd wax nostalgic for wieners? Or s'mores? Or bug juice, toxic with red dye? First-night fare I used to rail against in staff meetings. ("Why pander to kids' preconceptions of camp? Ironwood's different. We should show them from the start.") But Charlie Moss was director; he called the shots. Comfort food is always best on first night, he insisted. We had all summer for Camp Ironwood values.
Not this summer. Not for us. Not for Max.
Max's cast - well, half of it - sits up on the shelf, propped against the tools of my trade (The Riddle of Amish Culture; Habits of the Heart). And where is Max himself, his wrist now healed, strong again? I haven't heard anything since camp ended.
Excerpted from Avoidance by Michael Lowenthal Copyright © 2002 by Michael Lowenthal . Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
An affecting book. A Harvard Divinity School student writing his dissertation on the Amish practice of shunning recalls his years as a summer camper after his father died and, especially, later, as an assistant director at the same camp during a year when he has a special relationship with one of the campers. It's a meditation on the meaning of especially intense communities set apart from the world, on friendship, & on the costs of inappropriate expressions of love. It's written in a way that makes you eager to keep reading to see what will happen next, only with an excess of writerly similes.
I eagerly picked up a copy of Avoidance at the recommendation of a friend. After reading the book flap, I knew I wasn¿t in for a light-hearted romp, but I wasn¿t prepared for the heaviness of Michael Lowenthal¿s second novel. Jeremy is a 28-year-old man working on his post-graduate thesis, a study of the Amish custom of shunning. His true passion, however, is Ironwood Summer Camp, where he spent his childhood summer and where he found his true sense of family after the death of his father. Jeremy now works at the camp as assistant director and he spends the cold months of winter longing for summer so he can return to Ironwood. Lowenthal uses Jeremy¿s study of shunning powerfully, illustrating and paralleling the social structure of the camp. When Jeremy finds himself attracted to a fourteen-year-old lost soul named Max, he is disturbed and frightened. When Max confides in him that he has been molested by the camp director, it stirs up many issues and buried memories that Jeremy isn¿t sure he¿s ready to deal with. All of the denizens of Lowenthal¿s world feel real, and even the secondary characters are fully realized. His writing is evocative and beautiful. There¿s no doubt that he is a great talent in the world of gay literature. I found I couldn¿t put the book down¿even when I wanted to - which was the problem. The story is so dark and depressing that I really didn¿t want to finish it, but I just couldn¿t stop reading. The ending was very disappointing for me. Jeremy seems to be hell-bent on being a martyr and it left me feeling very unsettled and unsatisfied. I was haunted and depressed for days after reading this book.
This book has an excllent story and shows deep understanding of the subject. But mostly the book shows us a lot about beautiful writing and the craft of language. Michael Lowenthal is a master of both and anybody who loves to read for the sheer joy of reading will love this.
Michael Lowenthal has painstakingly crafted a novel that gives us many levels of "avoidance." There's the obvious connection between Amish shunning of those who act against the Amish culture and the Judeo-Christian shunning of those who act against Judeo-Christian dogmas, but that's just a beginning. On much deeper and more rewarding levels, 'avoidance' depicts shunning between a potential object of desire (Max) and potential lover (Jeremy), shunning between the demi-god Ruff and the worshipper (Jeremy), shunning between Camp Ironwood and the outside world of parents, and shunning within a single individual between Jeremy's intellect and heart. On all these levels, Lowenthal creates a wonderful tension with beautifully sculptured sentences, fresh imagery, and delightful plot twists that keep the reader turning pages right through the bittersweet epilogue. Michael Lowenthal teaches writing at Boston College, they say. Lucky students!
This is a painstakingly crafted, beautiful book of memorable characters, moral dilemmas, and the inevitable conflict between what one should do and what one longs to do. Jeremy, Max, and Beulah are the type of characters who seem living entities rather than creations, and the worlds of the Amish as well as Camp Ironwood are beautifully and lyrically drawn. A beautiful, memorable work.
This novel is very timely in its examination of the social dynamics of the sexuality of minors and the ways society views sexual abuse. But that is not all that this book is about. It is about social conventions and mores, and how relative they can be depending upon our environment and our upbringing. The Amish characters in Avoidance, cloistered in their world of absolute rules and boundaries, cast out members of their own families for failing to repent for transgressions that non-Amish people would consider to be minor infractions, if infractions at all. In the narrator Jeremy's world of the boys' summer camp, our ideas of desire, sexual identity and boundaries are put to the test, and the situational ambiguity of our conventional ideas of social responsibility and morality becomes evident. Far from advocating or trivializing intergenerational relations or abuse, Lowenthal forces us to take a hard look at the fine line between desire and the physical act. Is it wrong to desire a fourteen year-old as long as that desire goes unfulfilled? If the child's well-being is foremost in your mind and in your job description, is it still wrong to harbor fantasies about him? Where should the line between "victim" and "predator" be drawn? Indeed, are such narrow definitions always appropriate? How can a thought equal a crime? These are questions that, despite the ultimate answers--if any exist--are rarely asked or discussed. In Avoidance, Lowenthal captures the pain and the thrill of desire so completely, and he places the reader, through his first-person narration, squarely inside Jeremy's mind in such a way that you find yourself feeling the thrill of Max's flirtations, and almost hoping that Jeremy gets what he wants. And that's the beauty of the writing: it challenges you, before you know it, to see sexual desire in a completely different way. You surprise yourself, and make excuses and justifications for it before your socially-ingrained response--that this is "wrong"--kicks in. In fact, Avoidance is all about denial in its many subtle manifestations, and the lengths to which we will go protect others and ourselves from the pain that lurks beneath the surface of our everyday lives.