My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Anneewakee by Steve Salem Evans is one of those charming/horrifying books that, had it been put out by a recognized publisher, would have been fodder for radio talk shows. After all, when the revelations of this punitive U.S. teen camp initially hit the air waves in the late 80s, before the advent of the Internet, it made headlines.
Child abuse leads to troubled adolescence when no responsible party intervenes. We might think of considerate relatives, licensed authorities or even teachers filling that latter role, but until today, teens often get the brunt of blame. Steve Salem Evans and his little sister (with cerebral palsy) had to navigate an alcoholic mother who was as likely to be found dead drunk naked on the floor of their house as in any coherent state. The creepy next-door neighbor sexually violated the author as a child, yet chapter one tells the story of an American male teen tricked by his willing uncle and mother into a labor camp that could as easily have been located in communist Russia.
Evans’ time in total isolation, in a dark cell, begins—and its legitimacy is court ordered. While festering with little-to-no human contact (and definitely no kindness), he worries about his little sister and starts hearing things, seeing things. Without music, reading material, school, light, anything at all, the boy might as well have been an enemy of the state.
We don’t treat dogs this way. The name of this hell hole is Evaluation and Observation (E & O), and the man who receives Evans nearly kills him by strangulation.
The author does a marvelous job of demonstrating, through reflection and gripping story line, what boys in this facility endured. His sincerity and humility shine as he admits that some boys may have benefited from the Anneewakee Boys’ Wilderness Camp, for it obviously changed over the years and in the type of staff it had. That it was out of the public eye and censure gave those counselors great leeway—for good or evil. Personal philosophies dictated the approach of each counselor.
Henry is thrown into E & O after Evans has been there about 80 days. The author talks to the other boy through a vent. Henry has been committed by his father, on the first time Henry smoked pot and was caught doing it. They form a deep bond and keep each other from going stark raving mad. Once beaten into submission (for Evans, literally), the boys are allowed to join camps outdoors in total wilderness where they learn to live on their wits, working sun up to sun down until they vomit and bleed. Punishments defy imagination.
The trauma endured by Evans was worsened by the marked lack of concern by his mother, who, despite coming from a well-to-do family, never sent clothes or food like the other parents. The reader cannot help wondering how we in society live without noticing the pain of others, especially of the young. Nonetheless, despite deprivations and the presence of psychotically ill members like Marcus (a danger to everyone), Evans makes some amazing friendships, acquires patience in his despair, and realizes he is learning to survive. There are some moments of bonding with nature that will resonate with the reader—a kind of mercy delivered by God and Life itself, not man.
Although girls were at Anneewakee, this is a boy’s story, focusing on the experience of boys and their interests. Evans and his buddies get to meet some girls from another part of Anneewakee at a dance (!), and the author includes certain sexual experiences, but with the kind of measured hindsight that implies there is a difference between floozies and nice girls, and a sadness to girls (or female adults) who give themselves away easily. As in the instance of Henry, the experiences do not create the kind of solid platform of love that lead to stability in later life.
This is a gripping story and it begs many questions, the most prominent of which is whether we care about what happens to our young people. While Americans draw the line around their private space, how much does the happiness of the child next door count? Anneewakee is a testimony to haunting authors’ voices, telling important stories, that respected mainstream publishers have failed to pick up.