Review of The Order of the Poison Oak


The Russel Middlebrook Series Continues

Last week, I posted about The Geography Club book and movie by Brent Hartinger, and about how much I loved it. Imagine my delight when I discovered that there are now a series of books featuring Russel. So I snatched up the second one in the series: The Order of the Poison Oak and read it in one sitting. Though this book is geared towards Young Adults, I feel that this is a book that anyone can enjoy, regardless of age. As with The Geography Club, I found it an excellent read.

School’s Tough

(Geography Club spoilers below)
At the end of the last book, Russel, who just joined the Gay/Straight Alliance group at school, is outed to the entire school. In the beginning of The Order of the Poison Oak, things are not easy for our hero at Robert L. Goodkind High. Told through the perspective of Russel, we learn that he is the brunt of anti-gay slurs, gets his locker defaced on a regular basis and receives anonymous bullying e-mails. In regards to the old “Sticks and Stones adage, he writes:

”..did it ever occur to whoever wrote that stupid adage that hurtful words might be a pretty good indication that stick and stones are on the way?”

When his friend Gunnar asks Russel if he’d be interested in being a counselor at summer camp with him and their friend Min, Russel jumps at the chance. The idea of being somewhere where nobody knows about him sounds pretty good to him. So off they go….

Off to Summer Camp

Russel, Min and Gunnar arrive at Camp Serenity where they’ll be spending the rest of the summer. During an orientation meeting, Russel notices fellow counselor and strikingly handsome Web, who, as Russel describes him, “was much prettier than any postcard.” When the camp director pairs up counselors who will be working together, Russel plans on working it so he’ll be paired up with hunky Web but to his surprise and dismay, his friend Min cuts him off and pairs herself with Web. Later on, an argument ensues as to whether Web is gay or straight? Russel takes this as a challenge. So who gets him? Ah, but you’ll have to read the book to find out.

Monsters and Hellions and Brats, Oh My

The counselor gig turns out to be much more challenging that Russel had originally thought. The first group of kids who will spend two weeks at camp are disfigured burn survivors and the counselors are given two days of Burn Survivor Sensitivity Training to prepare them. But nothing could prepare Russel for the cabin full of 10-year-old monsters for whom he is to be responsible for the next couple of weeks. They refuse to listen to him and defy him at every opportunity. To make matters worse, it appears it is only Russel who has unruly kids – everyone else’s seem to be fairly well-behaved. Russel finally gains control and the respect of his kids, only to lose it later on through a careless inaction on his part. But he does end up redeeming himself later on through a delightful story he tells the kids and the “secret order” that develops from that story. This was an especially touching and heartfelt section of the book which made me like Russel all the more.

Love on the Rocks…

Russel develops a relationship with someone at camp, only to realize later that it is someone else that he had fallen in love with – he just doesn’t see it at first. Min’s relationship falls apart as well because of Russel’s actions and for a good portion of the book, the two are not on speaking terms. And Gunnar? Well, he decides that he is not going to date anyone at all and declares that he has completely given up on girls. A couple of embarrassing yet comical mishaps (ie. Gunnar tripping on a fish in front of the girl who like him) entrenches his decision even further. Funny that…it seems that love tends to find us especially when we try with all our might to push it away. At one point, things look pretty bleak for Russel, Min and Gunnar. But eventually, it all comes together (well, for most of them).

Learning and Growing

This is one of those books where the reader feels as though he or she is on an emotional roller-coaster – at times I was laughing, at times I teared up; at other times I cringed, while a few times I was angry – all of which indicates a story well told. While Russel certainly does his fair share of screwing up, he also learns and grows throughout the story and is a much different person at the end than he was on Page 1. Through his mistakes, he learns the importance of doing the “right thing” and ends up discovering that we are all special and unique, no matter what our outward appearance or how hard we think we have conformed. I found the characters to be well-developed and for me, they really came to life throughout this book. For me personally, this story brought back  fond memories of the many summers that I spent as a 4-H camp counselor. The Order of the Poison Oak contains all of the things that makes a story great: adventure, struggle, friendship, redemption and yes, even romance – and is an exquisite addition to the YA/LGBT genre. I look forward to reading the next book in the series.  Recommended!!

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