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The Inverted Forest

A Novel

About The Book

This “gripping, tender, and at times disturbing tale” (Entertainment Weekly) of unlikely devotion and sudden violence in an isolated Midwestern summer camp is a compelling follow up to the award-winning Heaven’s Lake.

From the prizewinning author of Heaven Lake comes an extraordinary story of unlikely devotion and sudden crisis in an isolated summer camp.

Late on a warm summer night in rural Missouri, an elderly camp director hears a squeal of female laughter and goes to investigate. At the camp swimming pool he comes upon a bewildering scene: his counselors stripped naked and engaged in a provocative celebration. The first camp session is set to start in two days. He fires them all. As a result, new counselors must be hired and brought to Kindermann Forest Summer Camp.

One of them is Wyatt Huddy, a genetically disfigured young man who has been living in a Salvation Army facility. Gentle and diligent, Wyatt suffers a deep anxiety that his intelligence might be subnormal. But while Wyatt is not worldly, he is also not an innocent. He has escaped a punishing home life with a reclusive and violent older sister. Along with the other new counselors, Wyatt arrives expecting to care for children. To their astonishment, they learn that they will be responsible for 104 severely developmentally disabled adults, all of them wards of the state. For Wyatt it is a dilemma that turns his world inside out. Physically, he is indistinguishable from the campers he cares for. Inwardly, he would like to believe he is not of their tribe. Fortunately for Wyatt, there is a young woman on staff who understands his predicament better than he might have hoped.

The Inverted Forest is filled with yearning, desire, lust, banked hope, and unexpected devotion. This remarkable novel confirms John Dalton’s rising prominence as a major American novelist.


Chapter One

A night breeze lifted the dark skirts of the forest. The usual riot of insects fell quiet. Into the well of this new silence came a sudden peal of laughter—a bark of laughter, exuberant, righteous, feminine.


The sound of it at 2:16 A.M.: half raucous cheer, half squeal of delight, borne like a tumbling feather across the wide, night-screened meadow of Kindermann Forest Summer Camp.

On the opposite side of the meadow, in a one-room cedar cottage joined to the camp office, Schuller Kindermann looked up from his drafting table.

He considered his wristwatch. His kindly shopkeeper’s face, known for its paternal softness and for the mildness of its expressions, assumed a disappointment that was sharp and private. In his unsteady right hand he held a surgeon’s scalpel, the tip of the scalpel pressed into a sheet of heavy Italian-made paper, the paper to be cut millimeter by millimeter, fiber by fiber, then prodded, molded, expertly creased, until, like a pop-up book or the ribs of a paper lantern, it would rise up and assume the shape Schuller intended.

He called his creations Foldout Paper Cards, a hobby of his own invention, though recently an art supplies wholesaler had visited camp and surveyed Schuller’s cards, which had been set out in a display case, and declared them examples of kirigami, a Japanese art form. Schuller wanted to scoff at this pronouncement. Kirigami. Imagine that. To be told he is a kirigamiist! He’d begun making Foldout Paper Cards some eight years earlier, near the time of his unofficial retirement and the gradual handing over of daily camp operations to the program director. Tonight, Schuller had hoped to cut and bend and coax from the paper a three-dimensional outline of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Milan, Italy. Too bad then that, at this late hour, the basilica would not rise, would not reveal itself, thanks to the bark of laughter and his lack of concentration and the palsied tremor—mild, to be sure—quivering the wrist of his right hand. What a shame. If he’d had his window fan on, he might not even have heard it.

He rose and slipped his bare feet into a pair of loafers. Before stepping out the door, he switched on the porch floodlight—a marbled brightness, a low, buzzing hum. In an instant there was a mad spiraling of gypsy moths and enough gauzy light for him to shuffle ahead a few timid steps and descend the porch’s sagging pine board stairs.

It was much better once he felt the rich meadow grass beneath his loafers. He had his bearings. His night vision was reasonably good. If he concentrated, he could recall, or rather rehear, the laugh, its upward feminine lilt, its open claim of privilege, too.

At once he had a sure-voiced intuition as to which direction the laughter had come from, and he set out along a path that would take him across the meadow toward the sleeping cabins and sandlots and recreation courts and swimming pool. A lengthy enough hike, especially at night, but so be it. He was used to crossing the meadow—three acres long, two wide, the largest clearing in all of Kindermann Forest Summer Camp. Over the course of the summer the meadow would serve as assembly and parade ground, capture-the-flag field, parking lot. It never failed to draw the eye of each visitor. To parents the meadow looked safe, a happy accident of geography amid an otherwise rugged Ozark landscape. (No accident. The meadow had been cleared of cedar trees in 1957, and every spring since then Schuller and the maintenance staff had collected and carried off thousands of stones that pushed through the skin of the grass.)

There was a soft freckling of light along the scrubby southern edge of the meadow, the clustered winking of fireflies. In time he made a measured and mostly confident descent along a mild, dew-slick slope to a volleyball court and a row of tire swings. At the swings a brick walkway began and in the span of a few careful steps became something else: a burrowed path into the woods, a long sweep of tunneling darkness.

From this point on, it would be a more painstaking journey. With the soles of his loafers, he felt his way forward, one brick to the next, a meticulous and sure-footed tap, tap, tapping, until, after much time and blind probing, he arrived at a large, partially lit swimming pool built into the thick of the woods.

So they’d been bold enough to turn on the shower-house lights and let the soft gleam spill out across the deck and the pool’s lapping surface. A few dim shapes moved in the water. He could see the red glow of cigarettes, could hear a kicked bottle rolling across the concrete deck. All of this an unwelcome surprise, a disappointment, truly. But a satisfaction, at least, to know that his first hunch had been correct. And a relief, a consolation, to remember this: the campers had not yet arrived; the start of the first session was still, thankfully, two days away.

Even so, he marveled at the trespassers’ sense of entitlement, of which he’d seen no sign during the past week of counselor training. Not that he knew what to look for, exactly. In Schuller’s experience each generation of summer camp counselors adopted its own awkward and always veiling brand of etiquette while in the company of the camp director. This group had shown him nothing but a bright and vaguely cloying eagerness. Carry your satchel, Mr. Kindermann? Will there be a campfire this evening? Oh, good, Mr. Kindermann. And will we be doing “Lights of the City” on the guitar?

Such agreeableness. And yet, here they were, his earnest counselors, ignoring the midnight curfew and wading about the pool like guests at a spa. He stepped up to the fence.

They were pale and chubby, these trespassers and curfew breakers. They had lined up at the diving board, most of them. And in the matter of swimsuits, they seemed to prefer—

He squinted, blinked.

What he’d first thought to be two paunchy and shirtless young men were, on second glance, two bare-breasted young women, naked young women, edging along the length of the board. He knew them by assignment rather than by name: an archery instructor, a petite arts and crafts attendant, her hair cut in a girlish bob. Both young women moved as if they were treading the windblown ledge of a high building, and yet, unmistakably, they were grinning and laughing and pretending to unbalance one another with a sudden push or turn. Upon arriving at the end of the board, the first girl did a brave hop and fell a few short feet onto what looked to be a very narrow plastic raft that someone had floated in her direction. No surprise that the raft buckled and shot out from beneath her. She somersaulted forward and revealed the dark cleft of her ass.

The raft was floated back out in range of the diving board. The second young woman took her leap. Only then did Schuller recognize the raft for what it was: a large, absurd blow-up hot dog nestled in a fat, inflated bun—a ridiculous pool toy, but also an advertisement for the Oscar Mayer Company. Tonight it was being put to a different use—as a sight gag for the girl counselors of Kindermann Forest.

And the boy counselors? There were several lined up at the board. They, too, walked their naked walk. One difference: the hot dog was held back and an ordinary black inner tube was floated out to the center of the deep end. Each boy leapt toward it. The goal, apparently, was to land dead center and penetrate the tube with a dive or feet-first jump. None of the boys could manage it. But what a scene they made, under- or overshooting their target, then hoisting themselves up naked onto the inner tube, sprawling across it, writhing for control. For this they received whooping cheers of encouragement from an unseen audience treading water in the pool.

Schuller, his fingers curled through the wire diamonds of the pool fence, understood he was seeing an elaborate game or joke acted out: the lurching Oscar Mayer hot dog for the girls, the drifting inner tube for the boys. He wasn’t blind to the implications.

The front gate was open and swinging on its hinges. Schuller passed through it and, having descended the first of eight wide steps, looked out and saw a host of young men and women strutting about the shallow end. For all he knew, his entire staff of counselors had gathered here. They were, without exception, unclothed, naked by consensus.

Of course he’d have to pass along news of what he was seeing to other members of the Kindermann Forest senior staff. There’d be the presumption that Schuller took pleasure in this spectacle. After all, the counselors were young. He was old, seventy-eight years to be precise. Wasn’t it arousing for an old man to look upon a young woman’s naked body? His most honest answer: no, not women’s bodies, nor, for that matter, men’s. Not children’s, either.

He took a step down, this one rushed and uneven, and found himself swaying to the left, not far enough to fall, but enough to get his heart racing and to draw the attention of someone nearby, a young woman standing beside the open shower-house door. Even in his precarious state he recognized her: Wendy Kavanagh, head lifeguard and swimming instructor, an exceedingly tubby girl with large round hips and buttocks, enormous clapping thighs. He’d had reservations about hiring her. But what objections could he offer? Her credentials had been first-rate. And she’d easily outswum the competition. At present she was moving toward the steps, her gaze trained on him, her manner oddly commiserative. A lifeguard’s whistle dangled between her breasts.

Did she think she was beautiful without clothes? Was she not embarrassed? There was a time, not so long ago, when young women of her size and odd shape would not dare appear—even clothed—at a public swimming pool.

She raised her bare arm up to him.

Only then did her intentions become clear. She meant to steady him as he descended the steps. She meant to guard him against falling. As courtesies went, this one was unforgivable.

He managed the last six steps on his own, crossed the deck to the shower house, and flipped on, one by one, the full complement of outdoor pool lights. At once a nimbus of hazy yellow light, a dome of light, materialized over the pool and drew—or were they there already?—a thousand whirring insects.

A naked diver leapt from the board. A dozen or more swimmers began to splash and cry out. “Lights off! Lights off!” they shouted. They raised their hands against the glare and recognized him. “Mr. Kindermann?” There was the proper ring of astonishment in their voices, though not the shamed panic he would have liked. Before long they were scrambling from the water, padding about the deck naked, towel-less, snatching up whatever hastily flung garments they could find. Somewhere in their ranks a young man laughed. A friend shushed him. Too late though. By then the hilarity had traveled to others, and soon they were all laughing aloud, several of them hysterically so, as they tried to wrestle underwear over their wet limbs. When this failed, they simply held their balled-up clothing to their chests and ran laughing for the gate.

Because there was but one exit, Schuller had time to recognize each counselor as he or she passed, if not by name then by camp assignment. Wrangler, arts and crafts attendant, canoe instructor. Thirteen, no, fourteen counselors in all.

The pool they’d left behind was a ruin of gaudy debris: beer bottles and clothing and side-turned lounge chairs and, in the middle of it all, Wendy Kavanagh, who by now had covered herself, armpit to thigh, with a large beach towel and was stooped over the deck, gathering up stray kickboards and stacking them, as she’d been taught, beneath the lifeguard’s chair.

The sight of her, bent to work, aggravated him. He found his voice. “Oh, for Christ’s sake, Wendy. Get back to your cabin.”

She labored on.

“Do you hear me, Wendy?”

She nodded while stacking boards. “I’ll just be a minute, Mr. Kindermann.”

“You will not,” he ordered. “Find your swimsuit and steer yourself back to your cabin.”

She stood straight and weighed the instructions given to her. Some element of what he’d spoken, the tone perhaps, appeared to baffle her. “I can let the boards go till morning,” she said. “But the filter’s off and the—”

“LEAVE THEM BE!” he shouted, and she stared back openmouthed, amazed. A June bug alighted on her damp hair. She shook it off, surveyed the cluttered deck, winced in sadness or regret. Then she rummaged beneath a lounge chair, found her flip-flops, though not her swimsuit, and marched her way up the steps and into the cavernlike blackness of the walkway.

Schuller meant to follow her, yet once he’d tuned off all the lights, he found the boundary between deck and stairs impossible to locate. He stepped back, flipped on the shower-house switch.

The sudden flickering of light caught an unclothed woman stranded halfway between the shower stall and the bay of lockers behind which she’d been hiding.

They both jumped. Schuller’s heart did a queer double thump before settling back into a more sensible rhythm. The woman appeared even more startled, struck dumb, too overwhelmed to catch her breath.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” he insisted.

Her mouth hung open. She raised a hand to her lips and fanned her fingers about, as if she’d just tasted something blazingly hot. An absurd gesture, certainly, and, for Schuller, a familiar one. He had a younger cousin, now twenty years dead, who, when frightened, would fan her mouth in the exact same motion. Odd that this long-forgotten gesture should reveal itself in, of all people, this naked woman, a black woman no less, the first Kindermann Forest Summer Camp had ever employed.

“Really,” he said. “I—”

She found her breath, suddenly, in one deep and rather noisy inhalation. Her shoulders heaved.

“What would your people think of this?” Schuller asked.

She would not look him in the eye. Instead she let her gaze wander the shower room. She reached out, pulled a deflated beach ball from the locker shelf and, after a moment’s consideration, decided to hold it over her lap rather than her chest. “I don’t think they’d be very happy about it,” she said.

“They’d be furious, I’m sure. And your son. What would he think?”

“He’s so young, Mr. Kindermann. I don’t think he’d have an opinion, one way or the other.”

“He’ll grow up fast though, won’t he? Then he’ll have all sorts of opinions.” He squared himself for the task of climbing the pool steps. “After I’m gone,” he said, “you will dress and you will turn off the lights. Do you understand me?”

She nodded.

“I won’t forget this,” he said. “The disappointment. The shock of seeing you.”

It seemed he’d spoken persuasively on the matter. Fortunately, he didn’t undermine his message by teetering on the steps or, once he’d located the brick walkway, losing his way amid the utter darkness.

The meadow, when he reached it, was awash in humid air. Nearby the tree branches raked against one another. The grass beneath his feet felt spongy and alive. From the valley behind him came a soft rumbling thunder and the distant hiss of rain moving in his direction. He picked up his pace. In time he could see the glow of his cottage window. Fifty yards closer and he could make out the crown of soft lamplight shining down on his drafting table.

At worst he would make it back to his cottage with a few thick raindrops puddled in his hair. But what if he didn’t make it back at all?

Sometimes, not often, it made him unaccountably happy to think of the curtain swinging shut on his life. To be taken in an instant. To have a lightning bolt find him and leave for the staff of Kindermann Forest a stirring artifact: his half-charred loafers steaming in the meadow grass.

Nothing of the sort happened. The remaining events of his night were small and ordinary. He brushed his teeth (real teeth, not even a crown or bridge). He went to bed. Three hours later he woke to a muted gray dawn and a steady drizzling rain against the cottage window.

He had every right to feel groggy and drained. A pleasant surprise then that he should feel such unexpected vigor in exchange for so little rest. He washed and dressed. Then he passed from his cottage into the much larger camp office, where he brewed a pot of coffee and sat behind the director’s desk.

At six-thirty he called Meadowmont Gardens Nursing Home and spoke to Mrs. Davenport, the shift supervisor on Hall 2A, regarding what progress, or lack thereof, had been observed during the previous week. While they talked, a nurse’s aide helped Schuller’s brother, Sandie, shuffle from his room to a lavishly furnished yet sterile parlor, to a leather armchair, to a telephone receiver placed in Sandie’s left hand and guided to a resting place between his neck and chin.

This was a ritual carefully followed each Saturday morning for the past eleven months, since Sandie’s release from the hospital and his admittance to Meadowmont Gardens. Impossible to know whether these phone calls lifted Sandie’s spirits; on the whole they left Schuller feeling glum. And it wasn’t so much Sandie’s disabilities, his pivoting shuffle and withered left side, his grossly slurred and often impenetrable speech, which eleven months of therapy had done little to improve. No, it was a certain dullness that Schuller had detected in his brother several years before the stroke, a slackening of interest in camp activities, in his model railroad sets, in himself. Difficult to share a life and a cottage with someone so annoyingly mild. All the more troubling because they were twins. Not identical, but fraternal twins who happened to look a good deal alike. Not identical, they’d explained to the unobservant thousands of times during their seventy-eight years as siblings and four decades as codirectors of Kindermann Forest Summer Camp, during their long and unbroken bachelorhood—though, of course, few people would mistake them as identical now.

“There’s some weather headed your way,” Schuller began. “We got it last night. Wind and showers and whatnot. Nothing dire, but if you’re going out to Holy Infant this afternoon, you’ll want to have Theresa bring along an umbrella.”

To this a curt reply, not so much a word as a breathy huff of acknowledgment.

“And you’re adjusting very well to the new blood medication. No dizziness with this one. At least according to Mrs. Davenport. That’s good news, I would think.”

From Sandie a murmur, a kind of elongated “huuurrummmmmph.”

They were abrupt and one-sided, these Saturday phone conversations. One always hoped for the solace of family connection, but then again, one was frequently disappointed. At least today Schuller had an interesting topic. He began describing last night’s spectacle, the shock of it, the willfulness involved, and a question came to him: he wanted to know what would cause young women to undress and behave that way. Schuller had grown up in the world of boys and men and knew their tendencies. But women? It was widely known they didn’t have the same appetites as men. So what pressures had been brought to bear on them? Was it alcohol? When it came to the conduct of women, Sandie’s experience extended beyond his own. Certainly, Schuller would have liked to have known, but instead he talked about the strewn clothing and cigarettes and beer bottles, and at last he received a prolonged response, sibilant and damp and plaintive-sounding. Without recognizing a single word, he understood the sum and substance of Sandie’s reply, his primary objection: the location of the swimming pool. Years earlier Schuller had insisted the pool be built twenty yards into the woods, and he was now willing to concede that it wasn’t worth the extra expense, or years of leaf-clogged filters and root damage, not to mention the after-hours enticement a secluded pool presented to young counselors. So, yes, Schuller admitted, an unwise choice all around. He should not have been so stubborn. The problem at hand, though, was the violation of camp rules that had occurred the night before. Schuller had a specific penalty in mind, and when he shared this, he was surprised by both the vehemence of the response and by the fact that he’d not made sense of a single word.

“All right,” he told his brother. “I’ll certainly take that into consideration. We may just be of the—”

Another forceful reply, of which Schuller understood the words you and anyway.

“Very well, Sandie. You’re still my codirector after all. I remind everyone here of that. I do. All the time.”

“Sal-waze dun hut-chu-like.”

“I think so, yes. I’m inclined to agree. Now then, Mrs. Davenport says the van to Holy Infant leaves at three this afternoon. That’s an hour early. Theresa knows this. She’ll have everything ready. So, give my best to Father Ed and, well, everyone. Goodbye, Sandie.” He hung up the phone and watched several beaded drops of rain commingle and slide down the office picture window.

At seven-thirty he convened an emergency meeting of the senior staff: Program Director Linda Rucker, Head Cook Maureen Boyd, Head of Maintenance Reggie Boyd. Normally, a senior staff meeting would have included the head lifeguard and camp nurse and several others. Not so this meeting, which Schuller decided to limit to just himself and the three others: Linda, Maureen, Reggie, each of whom had worked at Kindermann Forest more than fifteen summers.

They arranged their chairs in a half circle around the director’s desk and then went straight to the strong pot of coffee Schuller had brewed, filled their cups and grimaced at the first sip.

He said it as plainly and forcefully as he could: “There’s been an incident that requires our immediate attention.” The somber tone he’d used and the careful way he’d assembled his words made Linda Rucker slump down into her chair and then lift her broad face up to Schuller with a wince of trepidation.

He recounted for them the events of the previous night, along with the pertinent details: the drinking, the discarded clothing, the inflatable hot dog and inner tube. Reckless behavior to be sure. More reckless, more vulgar than the usual indulgences of a summer camp staff. When Schuller revealed his recommended penalty for last night’s violations, he could tell it was not to Linda’s and Maureen’s liking. Quiet, uncomplicated Reggie Boyd, Maureen’s nephew, looked as if he wished he were back in the oily kingdom of his maintenance shed.

“Let’s think a moment, Schuller,” Linda said. “Let’s slow down just a minute and make sure this is the right step for us to take.”

He assured them he had thought it through. And it was the right step. No use trying to sort out all the different offenses: curfew, alcohol, trespassing, nudity. Much simpler to apply the same penalty to everyone.

“But we have to think about the timing, don’t we?” Linda asked. “Is it the best thing to do now, with the training nearly done? With the first and most difficult camp session still ahead of us?” Between Linda and Maureen there was a certain glance, pained and knowing, as if his involvement in this matter was an ordeal to be endured.

But what could they do, really—except exchange their glances and ask their patient questions? It was up to Schuller to determine what was necessary. He was still founder and owner of Kindermann Forest. The camp bore his name. The fact of it was so obvious it couldn’t be spoken aloud.

After the meeting, he walked with his senior staff across the meadow to the mess hall for breakfast.

At least they, his truant counselors, had managed to bring themselves, bleary and uncombed, to the mess hall tables. Schuller stood for Morning Prayer. Afterward platters of scrambled eggs and pancakes were passed from table to table. When breakfast was done, he rose and walked among the benches and finally motioned to a petite, freckled young woman, an arts and crafts attendant. He believed her name was Stacy. “Would you be kind enough to walk with me to the camp office?” he asked. And she nodded and strolled beside him, patiently, as he traversed the length of meadow.

Inside the office he sat her on the opposite side of the director’s desk and without preamble told her that her employment at Kindermann Forest had ended and she should make arrangements to be gone by dinnertime, if not sooner. She stared at him coolly from across the reach of the desk, a red-haired, pixie-faced college freshman who could pass for fifteen. Perhaps she thought of herself as brave. If so, she would need to revise her opinion. When he slid the phone across the table, when she dialed and spoke the first words to her father, her voice caught in her throat and she let out a loud, blubbering sob. Her father’s remarks seemed to make matters worse. She hung up the phone and cried harder. After a while she stopped. Schuller sent her to her cabin to pack and set out across the meadow to the mess hall.

It was a round-trip journey he made fourteen more times. Odd, but you could never tell in advance how a counselor would receive the news. Those who trembled and stuttered with anxiety during the walk over sometimes found a well of self-possession to draw upon when the phone was passed to them. Some who were aloof broke down. Kenny Cossman, unit leader for male counselors, cried. Schuller had spotted burly Kenny the previous night bouncing up the pool steps with his clothes in his arms (his penis half-erect and bouncing along with him). Too late now, of course. Nothing could be changed, senior staff member or not. But how odd it was, truly, to observe Kenny and several of the other large young men. They pleaded. They begged his pardon or cursed under their breath. Yet when the phone was handed to them, they huffed and sputtered and wept. Was there a particular frailty to large men when it came to being dismissed? One had to wonder.

He called upon Head Lifeguard Wendy Kavanagh last. By then, of course, the news was out. As they walked toward the camp office, she asked if it was mandatory that she be packed and out of camp by dinnertime.

He said it was.

Because her mother, she explained, would have to drive down from Chicago and wouldn’t reach Kindermann Forest until after dark.

“Then you may wait on the bench outside the front gate,” Schuller told her.

In the office she went straight to the phone and placed her call. “Swimming,” she said to her mother. “Swimming at night. After curfew. Oh yes,” she said, as if just now remembering. “Swimming naked. Yes, Mom,” she said. “Right. Wait a minute.” She held the receiver to her chest and turned her gaze across the table toward him. “Why?” she asked.

“Why what?”

“Why are we being fired?”

He nearly laughed. What a ridiculous girl! Was the whole world a puzzle to her? “As a counselor,” he said, “you have responsibilities, yes? For example, you are in charge of campers. And what if they were to sneak from their cabins—such things happen all the time—and see you and other counselors drinking and parading naked about the pool? What sort of lasting impression would that make? And what would it do to Kindermann Forest’s reputation if they were to return home and tell their parents or guardians?”

“But there are no campers,” Wendy said. “The campers don’t arrive till Monday.”

In his mind’s eye he reviewed what he’d seen of her the night before: her paunchy belly and enormous buttocks and thighs, the whistle dangling between her heavy breasts. Of the many reasons he had for firing her and her fellow counselors, the first was simple outrage. Outrage at the stupidity of the young. There was an old-fashioned name for this stupidity: callowness. What they’d been celebrating last night, these callow young men and women, was the oldest and most tedious joke—the penis, the vagina, the spectacle of intercourse. If they couldn’t feel shame at their own callowness, then let them at least feel the humiliation of being fired.

“Even so,” he said. “Campers or no campers. The principle remains the same.”

As it turned out, they’d inherited a muggy and slate gray morning. Schuller would have liked to have settled down in his cottage for a nap. Yet to do so would deny his remaining staff an essential loyalty: after all, if he were principled enough to make the truly hard decisions, then he should be equally mindful of helping to deal with the consequences. Inside the mess hall he found what remained of his senior staff in a desultory huddle around the director’s dining table: Linda Rucker, Maureen and Reggie Boyd, Camp Nurse Harriet Foster.

Of course, it wasn’t anywhere near as hopeless as they thought. He told them so. No time for discouragement, he said. Yes, they had two days to assemble a new staff of counselors before the campers arrived on Monday afternoon, but they would not be alone in the enterprise. He knew of more than twenty professional acquaintances who would begin working at once on their behalf. For instance, a list of potential lifeguards could be obtained from the YMCA. Counselors might be hired from the highest ranks of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts or from seminaries or from more than a dozen midwestern charity organizations. Not so impossible after all, he said, and for the benefit of a defeated-looking Linda Rucker, he raised his soft eyebrows in an expression that he hoped was measured and wise and determined. Nearby, Nurse Foster’s five-year-old son—fatherless, lighter skinned than his black mother—sat on the floor and let an old-fashioned wood top spin inside the corral of his legs.

Just outside the mess hall, on the pathways leading to and from the cabins, cliques of expelled counselors gathered to commiserate. No one, it seemed, could travel more than a few paces without receiving a prolonged embrace, a teary farewell. Schuller couldn’t help but marvel. What camaraderie, what solidarity of feeling, when, in fact, all they had done was endure a week’s worth of first aid and program training—and perhaps groped one another in the darkened woods.

And on the patio adjoining the mess hall sat the three counselors who, the previous night, had obeyed camp regulations, honored curfew, and remained clothed and sober in the cabins. They were—it had to be noted—an ungainly bunch, the two girls bony, anxious, unlovely; the boy pale and cloddish and otherwise hopelessly bland. What a shame, too, because these inadequacies were always obvious to the campers’ parents. Even with the tumultuous events of the morning, these three couldn’t seem to manage among them any sort of spirited conversation. Nevertheless Schuller strolled by and gave them a nod of encouragement.

But inwardly he brooded. Too bad, really. If it were possible, he would dismiss them all and start the summer from scratch.

© 2011 John Dalton

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Inverted Forest includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


The Inverted Forest begins in the summer of 1996 at the Kindermann Forest Summer Camp in rural Missouri. The elderly camp director finds his counselors swimming naked two days before camp is set to open and fires all of them. A whole new staff must be hired.  One of them is Wyatt Huddy, a genetically disfigured young man who has been living in a Salvation Army facility. Wyatt is diligent and reliable, gentle and large. All of his life he’s been misjudged because of his appearance. As a result, he harbors a deep uncertainty that he might not be as intelligent as other young men and women his age.  

Wyatt arrives at Kindermann Forest with a dozen other newly hired counselors. They are bewildered to learn that for the first two weeks of the camping season they will be responsible for 104 severely developmentally disabled adults, all of them wards of the state. In this world away from the world, the new counselors and the State Hospital campers begin to reveal themselves. Fortunately, Wyatt has an unexpected ally in the camp nurse, Harriet Foster. But there are other people at camp with stranger and more dangerous inclinations. Events reach a terrifying pitch when Harriet begs Wyatt to protect a young camper from a sexual assault. From that moment forward, Wyatt and Harriet will be bound by a tragedy that unfolds across the next fifteen years.  

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Why does Schuller Kindermann respond so coldly to his counselors when he discovers them celebrating naked at the pool after curfew? What does his reaction tell you about Kindermann’s character and attitude toward sexuality? 

2. At the beginning of the story, Wyatt Huddy is at a crossroad: “It was as if the summer months ahead were being divided into two distinct regions: the land of staying put and being exactly who everyone knew him to be. Or the land of going away and presenting a version of himself that the children and counselors at camp might find agreeable.” (p. 23) What does this line of thinking show you about Wyatt’s personality and self-esteem?  

3. Harriet Foster, the only African-American employee at the Kindermann camp, was not fired with the other staff members caught celebrating at the pool: “She was a mother, after all. She was five years older than most of the counselors. She was black. They were white and, by and large considerate, even welcoming people. Yet they thought of her as having lived a reckless, even desperate, urban life.” (p. 57) How much does Harriet’s race affect how she is treated at Kindermann Forest Summer Camp?  The novel never makes it explicitly clear why she wasn’t fired.  Was it because of her race?  Because of Mr. Kindermann’s fondness for her son, James? Or because the position of a nurse at camp is the most essential and hardest to fill?  

4. When the counselors of Kindermann Forest Summer Camp discover sexual relations going on between the male campers at night, they impose some harsh and ridiculous punishments. What is your reaction to how the counselors deal with this awkward situation? Is it just? Or is there a hint of cruelty in this punishment? Clearly, some of the campers have had sexual relations with one another back in their state institutions. Should they be allowed to continue these relations at camp? 

5. On page 119, Schuller Kindermann speaks about the nature of disabled people: “Do the retarded want to vote and marry and have children?  Do they want to sleep with one another? Some would say that they do want these things. Why?  Because it is what we are supposed to want.  We are all human, you and I and the retarded. Therefore we must all want the same things.  And yet if you can find a retarded person who hasn’t been influenced by these expectations, they will always be ambivalent about such matters. They don’t care either way.  They don’t particularly share our wishes and desires.  Our appetites.” (pp. 119) What prompted this speech? Do you think Schuller is qualified to make such statements? 

6. There are moments where each character reveals a range of personal phobias and concerns, particularly Schuller Kindermann’s aversion to sexuality: “Since boyhood he’d been willing to look inward and weigh carefully his private inclinations. Long ago he’d understood something singular and important: whatever it was that made people miserable or frantic or deliriously happy with longing, whatever strong compulsion made them lie down with strangers or writhe alone in their beds, whatever this was, it was not present in himself.” (p. 121) What do you make of this?  Literature is full of characters that make painful and absurd mistakes because of the strong pull of desire.  But Schuller Kindermann has no interest in sex or romance.  What are the hazards of living life without desire?  

7. Christopher Waterhouse first appears in the novel as a seemingly model camp counselor, even as Linda Rucker begins to question his integrity and intentions. At what point did you begin to share her doubts about Christopher? At what point were you certain that Christopher Waterhouse was, as Linda suggested, “a very selfish and destructive person.  The very worst kind to have working at camp.” (p. 107)

8. The emotional and physical abuse inflicted on Wyatt Huddy by his sister, Caroline, is revealed through a flashback. It also explains his relationship with Captain Throckmorton and how Wyatt came to work at the Salvation Army. What do these insights reveal about Wyatt’s demeanor, growth, and essential self-worth?         

9. Linda Rucker doesn’t have the physical appearance people expect in a camp program director.  She may not be traditionally lady-like or beautiful. But she’s unquestionably a highly competent, perceptive and compassionate employee. How does her outward appearance work against her when it comes to earning the loyalty of the new counselors? How does Christopher Warehouse use her appearance against her?   

10. Was the firing of Linda Rucker fair? How much, if any, of the gossip about Christopher and Linda do you believe to be true? Do you sympathize with Schuller Kindermann’s decision to terminate Linda Rucker after 18 years of employment?  

11. “A strange place, summer camp. It was a small enough world that the shape of your private life could be widely known or guessed at and still everyone managed to cling to their unwise behavior, their private intensions. The counselors. The campers." (p. 190) After learning about the ensemble of counselors who come to work at Kindermann Forest, what are some of their motives for joining the camp staff? What are some of their “unwise behaviors”?

12. Did Christopher Waterhouse deserve to be killed for his actions? How do you feel about Wyatt Huddy after the horrifying events on Country Road H? Is murder by the hands of Wyatt Huddy justified?

13. The Inverted Forest leaps forward fifteen years and chronicles, among other things, Marcy Bittman Lammerses’ complicated reaction to Christopher Waterhouse’s death. What do you make of Marcy’s warm regard for Christopher and her hard-fought campaign to honor him with some type of memorial? What’s the source of her loyalty to Christopher?     

14. Are you satisfied with the way Wyatt and Harriet’s friendship deepens over time? Is Harriet right in assuming that Wyatt needs to take an IQ test? How will the results of this test benefit him in the future? 

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Apert Syndrome, the genetic affliction Wyatt Huddy was born with, affects 1 out of every 200,000 live births each year in the world. It is important to acknowledge that the brain is not affected by this syndrome, and most people with Apert Syndrome live healthy and fulfilling lives.

Do some research on this genetic disorder to understand Wyatt Huddy’s struggle. Discuss your findings with your book club. 

2. Another great character in literature suffering from a disability is the immortal Benjamin “Benjy” Compson from William Faulkner’s masterpiece, The Sound and the Fury. Compare the struggles and triumphs of both Benjy and Wyatt as they make their way in a world embracing their disabilities, facing a cruel world that ostracizes them because of forces beyond their control.  

3. Most new fiction writers spend a long time struggling to produce and publish their first novel.   Visit the author’s website at and read John Dalton’s essay titled “Done Yet? Struggling with the Novel” about the long effort writing his first novel, Heaven Lake.

About The Author

Photo Credit: Thumawadee Sarubut

John Dalton is the author of the novel, Heaven Lake, winner of the Barnes and Noble 2004 Discover Award in fiction and the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently a member of the English faculty at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where he teaches in their MFA Writing Program.  John lives with his wife and two daughters in St. Louis.


Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (July 10, 2012)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416596035

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Raves and Reviews

"Dalton writes you into a deep world thatsucks you up and spits you out hours later, a changed person. You can’tremember reading for hours, but there you are, staring at the book’s cover,dazed." --Ploughshares

Dalton’s expert control of his material is impressive....this is a fully populated, humane yet largely unsentimental narrative of lingering impact.
--starred reveiw, Kirkus Reviews

John Dalton’s masterly, deeply humane second novel offers old-fashioned Updikean pleasures: emotionally complex characters, gorgeously tuned sentences, and a briskly paced plot. This is among the best and most affecting novels of the year.
--The Daily Beast

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