Review: The Inverted Forest

Issue #117
Spring 2012

Dalton’s second novel begins: “A night breeze lifted the dark skirts of the forest.” This sensuous image escorts us into Kindermann Forest Summer Camp in rural Missouri. Here, all the camp counselors are skinny-dipping. We soon learn that elderly Schuller Kindermann will have none of this at his camp. Out they go, in come replacements: untrained counselors for the hordes of mentally challenged people who are about to arrive.

Here we have a situation that cannot turn out well. Dalton patiently walks us through with exacting language, pulling tension from air itself. The campers disembark from their bus and begin to scatter zigzaggedly across the camp’s meadow. The new counselors are instructed to get them back.

But was it acceptable to grip the man’s wrists—his flesh felt oddly spongy—and pry his arms from the trunk and then mostly drag him through the brush and back to the center of the meadow?…So it seemed it was acceptable, given that the campers might be lost in the woods, given that the meadow was in a state of chaos.

In this way, Dalton creates a quiet, steady world that is about to implode. Wyatt Huddy, a genetically disfigured counselor and Harriet, the camp’s African American nurse, turn into the book’s unlikely heroes. I can’t tell you how or why, because to do so would ruin the reading.

But know that, as the plot rolls toward its tragic climax, the essence of Wyatt’s moral challenge comes down to this: “To be convinced of such a thing he’d have to believe that in some people…there existed an enormous gap between who they pretended to be in public and the selfish and ugly thing they schemed to do in private. How awful it would be if this were true.”

Just as the dark skirts of the forest are lifted, so the book reveals the base sexuality of its characters. It also shows the seams in every person we meet—physical flaws, mental flaws. The Inverted Forest investigates the gaps between who people pretend to be and what they scheme in private. Dalton writes you into a deep world that sucks you up and spits you out hours later, a changed person. You can’t remember reading for hours, but there you are, staring at the book’s cover, dazed.

Sherrie Flick is the author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness.