The Counselors Review:
“You stand on the shoulders of giants.”
This was a popular refrain in my youth group growing up, and I believed it. I looked up to and admired the leaders who looked like superstars to my teenage mind. Only a year or two older, they had such a poise and wisdom that I aspired to bring, and were showing that young people really can make a huge difference in the world. Or, at least in my world.
When I was 16, one of my heroes was Jessica Goodman. She was the North American President of our movement, and she was a badass. Mind you, I didn’t know her very much at all. We met once or twice, and she was always kind to me. But what made her so incredible was her ability to stand in front of hundreds of us young Jews and lead. I don’t know where we were going, but I knew she made it look worthwhile to follow. Two years after I met her, I myself was on the North American leadership team, and I always tried to remember what a superstar Jessica was to me while I tried to lead a new generation of teenagers.
Fast forward 14 years, and I see on the internet that Jessica Goodman has become a New York Times bestselling author. So, as the bibliophile I am, I went to the local bookstore and bought a copy of her latest book. Her book, The Counselors, is set at a summer camp, which was intriguing for a lot of reasons. My wife is an Assistant Director at a summer camp. We got married at camp. And, what was most intriguing, Goodman and I spent time at the same camp in New York. It was my first time really reading a book where I had a shared experience with the writer, and I was fascinated to see how that would play out.
The book was good. It was an intriguing murder mystery with compelling characters, engaging plot twists, and was very well written. But what made this book so worthwhile for me was the characterization of camp. Throughout the novel, Goodman perfectly encapsulates the impact summer camp can have on a young person. The way camp is a safe environment to become the truest version of yourself, the way camp friendships resonate in your soul in a way totally different from any other relationship in your life. She was able to lift up the themes of my childhood and adolescence that had the greatest impact on me.
But the nuance of the book was the way Goodman handled the growing up process at camp. Because when you’re a child, camp is a mythical, magical place. You don’t get to see the endless planning that goes into the camper-perceived spontaneity. You don’t fully appreciate the logistics, the conflicts, the struggles when you are enjoying the rampant fun of a summer. Goodman perfectly encapsulates what it is like to fall in love with the magic of a place, even while you grow to understand the depth of that place. That a place can be home to perfect ideas and imperfect people. That you don’t fall in love with the buildings or the grounds or even the people, but rather with a version of yourself you get to be when you’re in those places, with those people.
I’ve never had a conversation with Jessica about our experiences of camp. But that isn’t the point. Because the greatest thing a writer can do is use their words to inspire big feelings in their reader. And Goodman did exactly that. The Counselors was a beautiful expression of a feeling I’ve been playing with for years. What does it mean to love a place even when it shows its flaws? What does it mean to cherish memories without obligating the past to carry on into the future? And most importantly, what does it mean to accept the best version of yourself, even when you leave the place that helped you find it? The Counselors shows us just what it means to find that sweet spot between the ideal and the real.