Some may read Maggie Thrash’s graphic memoir HONOR GIRL and see a sweet, tragic love story. Most reviewers have received it this way. When I read it, however, I found HONOR GIRL remarkably indicative of something very sinister. On the surface, the setting is an unassuming summer camp. However, looking deeper, we find ignorance in the form of bullies, conformity, homophobia, and homogeneity. Whether this stems from the American, Southern, Christian influence, or all of the above, I cannot tell. Whatever created the ignorance, seeing these ideas so innocently embedded in Thrash’s story, struck me.

Every day we see the symptoms of a larger problem around us. In HONOR GIRL, it was especially prevalent. In many characters, there was complacency and indifference to issues that I myself have had dealt with. The casual (and sometimes not-so-casual) homophobia hit hard. This memoir illustrated some of the same social interactions I’d been in as a child. But looking at them from the outside, I really understood how toxic they could be.

HONOR GIRL Shows Us What We Can’t Let Go Of…

HONOR GIRL is the story of a short-lived romance between a fifteen-year-old Maggie Thrash and her nineteen-year-old camp counselor, Erin, in the 1980s. The character of Maggie is an amazingly accurate representation of a teenage girl. She’s unique, sweet, and often just awkward enough to make you wince in sympathy. As a former teenage girl, her portrayal felt spot on. That’s one of the best facets of HONOR GIRL — its realism. Camp Bellflower, with its campers and its atmosphere, felt totally plausible. This shouldn’t be a surprise, considering this is a memoir, and yet, I was constantly pleased by how relatable everything was. Maybe this is why some parts of it disturbed me so.

honor girl maggie thrash
Courtesy of Maggie Thrash and Candlewick Press

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Tradition

Various traditions make up the character of Camp Bellflower. Some are normal camp-like things, sing-alongs, badges, and field trips, while others are more peculiar. For example, every morning, the girls engage in Civil War reenactments. However, they don’t dress up or even stage battles. It consists of a yelling match of “BLUE!” on one side and “GREY!” on the other, the colors being a stand in for the Confederacy and Union, respectively. Thrash tells us about this ritual matter-of-factly, even though it’s definitely weird.

What makes it even more strange is that Thrash explicitly states that there were no girls of color at Bellflower. She remarks, “Even the one Jewish girl had blonde hair and blue eyes.” So, it’s a bunch of white girls reenacting an extremely superficial version of a bloody war predicated on the issue of slavery. It’s truly strange. More so for me, a mixed woman who’s never been to summer camp in her life. Yet, to Thrash and to all the girls at Bellflower, it’s normal. It’s been happening at this camp since 1922. Though it’s a bit off-putting and definitely problematic, the Civil War stuff doesn’t directly hurt our narrator. Therefore, it isn’t dwelled on as much. When it comes to other traditions, however, this isn’t the case.

Heteronormativity

The campers promote heteronormativity through various acts: the sex poll (listing the male celebrities you would “give your virginity to”), the obsession with the boys who work there, and the fact that two gay girls the previous year were ostracized to a point that they never returned. This type of tradition is more tangible to me than romanticizing the Civil War. That behavior is absurd and probably very specific to certain areas. In contrast, homophobia is something all American girls experience at some point. Regardless of how progressive your friends are, it’s impossible to escape casual aggressions like the type that Maggie meets during her time at camp. All the subtle (and not-so-subtle) remarks combine for a stressful, anti-gay atmosphere. This causes trouble when Maggie starts developing feelings for Erin.

maggie thrash honor girl
Courtesy of Maggie Thrash and Candlewick Press.

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Since their liaison is mostly secret, Maggie doesn’t experience direct homophobia regularly. When she does, however, it’s indicative of a deeply disturbing set of values. Believe it or not, this anti-gay sentiment is tradition, too. It’s something carried down from one’s religion, family, or environment. It’s a practice that strays away from progress.

Homophobia

Later in the novel, an older counselor named Tammy gets wind of Maggie and Erin’s “affair” (they’ve only kissed). With a blushing, uncomfortable face, she explains to Maggie that “parents don’t send their girls here to frolic around in your lesbian fantasy.” She also brings up Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and urges her not to “ruin [summer] for everyone,” as if Maggie’s developing feelings are more perverted and dangerous than her peers.”

This interaction showed the true faults of Camp Bellflower. It thrives on tradition and history, Maggie’s mother and her grandmother also went there every summer when they were young. I mean, every morning starts off with a mandatory Civil War reenactment: this place clings to the past. So when Maggie threatens these traditions, she inadvertently threatens the camp’s entire foundation. Maggie’s existence as queer suggests there is value towards moving away from what we see as normal.

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In the most disheartening part of the novel, Camp Bellflower awards Maggie the title of Honor Girl. This is meant to go to the girl who embodies the camp’s spirit the most. In particular, the camp’s Christian, rule-following, jingoistic spirit. Seeing as Maggie doesn’t really embody these traits, she comes to a startling realization: this is a cruel award for suppressing her feelings for Erin. It’s an award for her assimilation. This is a thank-you for pretending to be Bellflower’s warped definition of “normal.”

Just as families want to hold onto traditions in order to preserve the past, so do communities. Change, for some reason, terrifies us. We view the past through rose-colored lenses and try to keep things as they were.  Sometimes, remembering and honoring our history is beautiful. We can keep ancestors and legacies alive through stories and rituals that call back to them. However, clinging to what once was can also stop you from moving forward. As new ideas, identities, and information come to light, letting go of certain things is necessary.

maggie thrash honor girl
Courtesy of Maggie Thrash and Candlewick Press.

The Art of HONOR GIRL

Thrash also imbues this sense of “not letting go” through her art. As you can tell from the images above, this graphic memoir has a simple style. In fact, it reminds me of how I used to draw when I was first learning. Thrash’s uses the medium of the graphic novel so well it makes up for the rudimentary art. Yet, perhaps the artistic simplicity is purposeful. This is mainly a story of a fifteen-year-old girl’s romance with an older woman. Legally, their situation is muddy and morally, you can decide for yourself. Either way, seeing the tale drawn in such a way brings out the juvenility of it all. At fifteen, you really don’t have the details and the art skill and the experience. The art reflects such a mindset.

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Because the whole story is told through this style, it’s easy to see everything through a sweetened lens. Maggie herself certainly does. When she’s older and meets Erin again, the reality of her experience comes through. Suddenly, even their relationship was not as it seemed. It brings back the naivety of youth. We thought we knew everything, and that we knew how our relationships would turn out. And as HONOR GIRL shows us during its bittersweet ending, we’re usually wrong. But as Thrash holds onto her youth through artistic choices, we’re reminded that even the most self-aware people hold on to things and don’t let go. We all cling to the past. We gain a sense of nostalgia but often lose the current moment. It’s up to us to understand what traditions, memories, or histories are worth saving.

So Now What?

On a lighter note, after writing this article, my local summer camp gave me a call about a job offer. I’m still laughing at the irony. Reading HONOR GIRL has shed a new light on camp for me. Summer camp truly is a staple of the American experience. It often occurs during our greatest growth and change. Because of this, the experiences there often shape a person for better or for worse. Maggie Thrash was so affected she wrote a whole novel.

If I become a counselor, I’d do everything the Bellflower counselors didn’t do for Maggie. There are so many identities, stories, histories in the world. At Bellflower, it was all erased. There were uniforms and uniformity and a definition of normal that cut out so many voices from the narrative. I would work to destroy the idea of normal as much as I could and encourage questioning at every step the ideas we have of what is right, wrong, and beautiful. I hope I could convince some little girl to be the Maggie of the camp. She would be unafraid to step out of her roles. She can learn to find what truly makes her happy and whole. Perhaps she’ll make some meaningful change along the way.

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