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Review of "The Order of the Poison Oak"

By Brent Hartinger
HarperTempest, 2005
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on May 30th 2005
The Order of the Poison Oak

Brent Hartinger may be known to readers for his previous novel Geography Club, which told of the coming out of sixteen-year-old Russell, who formed the first Gay-Straight-Bisexual Alliance at his high school.  Now it is the end of the junior year and Russell and his friends decide to work as counselors at a summer camp.  He is looking forward to the change of scene since he has had homophobes at school yell "faggot" at him for the last weeks of the semester, and he has been feeling a bit sorry for himself. 

Russell becomes less self-obsessed when the summer camp starts and he is in change of a group of eleven-year-old boys who are burn survivors.  At first he has difficulty keeping the group from running riot and ignoring everything he says, because he finds it hard to use discipline.  He does not want to hurt the feelings of children who have already suffered so much.  But he comes to realize that they want to be treated normally, and he can't use kid gloves on them if he wants to get their respect.  Eventually he learns to be an excellent counselor, and learns a great deal from the boys.  He is able too identify with their isolation through his experience as a young gay man, and so they form the "Order of the Poison Oak" as a secret club to give them solidarity.

The other main feature of Russell's summer is romance.  As soon as he gets to the camp, he notices one of the other counselors, Web, who is very attractive to Russell.  Russell, is not sure whether Web is open to his advances, however, and his best friend Min, who is bisexual, also likes Web.  So when Web hits on him, Russell feels guilty.  The romance part of the novel is never explicitly sexual, but it is erotic and it is clear that Russell is interested in sex and is excited to be able to find someone he likes. 

The Order of the Poison Oak is a well-written novel for young adults.  It teaches a powerful lesson of understanding difference and feeling empathy for others.  The basic plot is pretty simple and the pace is swift, so it is a very easy read.  It is both entertaining and edifying, and so should appeal not only to young gay readers, but to any teens who have felt isolated from their peers.




© 2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved. 


Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.

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