Last Summer at Eden
LAST SUMMER AT EDEN. By Christina Hergenrader. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2017. 352 pages. $12.99.
Poppi Savot is the new summer director of Camp Eden, a Lutheran Camp located in southern California. Poppi is a gritty nineteen-year-old Minnesota native who feels that Camp Eden is home from the very moment she steps foot on its grounds. Unfortunately for Poppi, just like her home back in Minnesota, everything at Camp Eden is falling apart. Upon arrival, Poppi learns that Camp Eden doesn’t have the finances to even make it through the summer. Rather than turning tail and rushing back to her old job at Christ Camp in Minnesota, Poppi tackles the camp’s woes with religious zeal and seeks to make this the greatest summer in Eden’s history and hopefully save the camp from demolition along the way.
Branded as YA fiction, Last Summer at Eden is Christina Hergenrader’s debut novel for CPH. The reader travels with Poppi through the summer at Camp Eden and gets a taste of what camp life is like from a camp counselor’s perspective. There is a little bit of everything found in this novel: drama, heartache, hormones, betrayal, intrigue, humor, sickness, personality conflicts, romantic relationships, awkwardness, and lots and lots of pep-talks from Poppi.
Every chapter is given the title of a popular camp song. For example, chapter six is titled “I’ve Got Peace Like a River” and chapter twenty is titled, “I’m in the Lord’s Army.” Though clever, the song titles do not reflect the theme or content of the chapter that follows.
I have never served as a counselor at a Lutheran Camp and cannot attest to the verisimilitude of this novel, but I would really like to know what current and former camp counselors think of this book. My guess is that they would find it to be very nostalgic, and it’s easy to envision a copy of this book getting passed around from cabin to cabin and bunk to bunk over the course of a summer at any number of camps across America.
Though this is a book about a Lutheran Camp there is nothing distinctively Lutheran about the story. There are no references to baptism and the promises delivered to sinners therein. The only reference to the Lord’s Supper is that “Pastor Sean from Ascension comes out to lead worship and give us Communion” (chapter 58). The references to Jesus are entirely devoid of His suffering and death on the cross and His victorious resurrection. In fact, other than the title of chapter 53, “Lead Me to the Cross” the cross of Jesus is never mentioned—a glaring and unfortunate omission. There are multiple references to Bible studies in the novel, but you never actually observe one occur or see the lessons learned at one actually shape the lives and actions of the characters of the book.
The religious tenor of this book is entirely generic. Poppi strives to understand the “long view” of God’s plan for her life in the midst of heart-wrenching experiences and personal struggles. She has a lot of feelings about Camp Eden and she even wonders if these feelings are from God, but no clear answer—other than the trajectory of the narrative—is given. The hope of God’s love in the midst of struggles is not grounded in the cross of Christ, but in the assurance that the sun will rise again to a new day and that, “whatever happens, God has something good coming for us.” As Christians, we know that the “something good” that God has for us is the return of Jesus Christ in glory and our eternal salvation purchased by His death on the cross. Sadly, you never hear that message at Camp Eden. This unclear confession of Christ is my greatest critique of this book, and the reason why I would only recommend it with caveats.
With that said, I appreciate that this novel is actually a novel and not Lutheran dogma disguised as a novel. No theological truisms are shoehorned into the narrative to placate the publisher.
Criticisms aside, Christina Hergenrader has a wholesome story to tell and she tells it well. I was able to get through the novel without any trouble, and as a 33-year-old Lutheran pastor who’s spent a total of five days at a Lutheran camp when I was in sixth grade, I’m far from this book’s target audience. If you’re looking for a YA Fiction book that organically incorporates Lutheran or even Christian distinctives into its story, this book won’t deliver. However, if you’re looking for a trip down memory lane and long to be back at summer camp with friends, then Last Summer at Eden will surely strike the right chords.
Rev. Timothy A. Koch, Pastor of Concordia and Immanuel Lutheran Churches in Cresbard and Wecota, South Dakota.