Secrets at Camp Nokomis

Published in 2010; author Jacqueline Debmar Greene; illustrator Sergio Giovine


Rebecca's excited and nervous for her first time at camp. She's never been away from her family like this and she won't know anyone at the camp, but she settles in quickly. Her bunkmate, Tina, is very nice but somewhat reserved and shy--she changes in the outhouse instead of the tent, and rarely talks about herself. Even though Rebecca feels doesn't really know Tina, they get along well. Another girl in the tent, Mary, is very take-charge and overbearing...and a bully. Rebecca gets on her bad side by being chosen as narrator for a performance of Hiawatha. Mary also has something against Tina, who she calls Teeny behind the counselors' backs, because Tina is physically very slight. She has a bit of a limp, and Rebecca figures she's getting over an injury. She tells Tina how her cousin hurt his leg coming to America and is healed now, wanting to encourage her, and to prompt Tina to open up. Tina doesn't but is still friendly, just closed-off.

Meanwhile, Rebecca overhears a conversation between the cook and the director and surmises that there's some secret about one the people at the camp. It doesn't make much sense though; it's something about extra snacks and the health department.

Mary conspires with the other girls in the tent to vote against Rebecca and make Mary narrator instead. Tina's on Rebecca's side, but even though Mary doesn't know the lines and reads them haltingly and flatly, she gets the part. The camp counselor doesn't do anything about it and Rebecca and Tina figure there's no point bringing it up. One night someone puts a frog in Rebecca's sheets, and the letter her mother sent--the first piece of mail Rebecca's ever gotten, which she treasures--is gone. Who was behind it? Tina didn't seem to mind touching the frog when she put it outside, and she disappears a lot, but she seems so nice. Another girl wanted the stamp from the letter for her collection, but why take the letter, too? Mary's been a jerk, but now that she has the role of the narrator what does she have to gain? While she's pondering, she's asked to return a pitcher to the kitchen, and sees Tina eating there. No one else gets extra food. Why does she? Rebecca gives the pitcher to the cook and pretends to have not seen Tina. It's not like Tina would give her a straight answer if she asked, and the cook clearly doesn't want Rebecca--or anyone else--to know what's going on. 

The next day Rebecca discovers that Mary bribed the girls to vote against her. She's doing everyone's chores and giving them her desserts. At least one girl didn't want to vote against Rebecca, but she was threatened with snakes and frogs in her bed. Rebecca's angry, but when Tina asks her to be her partner for canoeing, Rebecca feels better that she doesn't have to bribe anyone to be friends with her. On the lake, Rebecca compliments Tina's arm strength and Tina explains she used crutches a lot because of her leg. Rebecca's stunned that Tina opened up but she won't elaborate any further. Rebecca's hurt that Tina doesn't trust her. 

She soon finds out the truth, though. While playing a game in the tent, Mary starts insisting they see what's in Tina's footlocker. Rebecca protests weakly while Tina does so strenuously, but Mary gets it open anyway. Inside is a leg brace. Tina had polio last year but isn't contagious anymore. However, it left one of her legs weak and she sometimes needs the support of the brace. The other girls aren't convinced--kids back in their cities are dying of polio. If Tina really isn't any danger, why would she keep it a secret? Tina says she didn't tell them because knew they'd react like this. That night, Tina and Rebecca have a brief whispered argument after lights out about friendship and trust. Rebecca sleeps for a few hours and wakes up in the middle of the night. She feels guilty for not making more of an effort to keep the footlocker closed, and wants to apologize to Tina. But Tina's gone. Rebecca slips out into the dark to look for her. Mary sees her and follows. At first Mary defiantly says it was just a prank, a game; like everything else she's done. Rebecca counters that she's just mean to everyone, and if Tina gets hurt it's Mary's fault. Mary starts crying and agrees, and they search together. They spy a fire, but when they arrive it's their camp counselor and another male employee, who are dating. The girls tell them about Tina and they understand right away. 

It turns out Tina's mother is the camp cook, and they live a short distance from camp. The director wanted Tina's mother to be the camp cook, so in exchange Tina was allowed to come. The exercise (and extra food) has been making her stronger, and she's hopeful that her old friends at school will no longer fear catching polio from her if they see that she's really well, especially if she can manage to go without the leg brace. Tina went home, too hurt and disappointed to stay in the tent. Rebecca and Mary make up with her and the next morning she's back at camp. Rebecca and Mary told the other girls in their tent about their nighttime excursion, and they're all ready to stand up for Tina and be good friends to her. Mary has turned a leaf too, seeing now how to make real friends. She tells Rebecca to take back the part of the narrator, and also returns the letter--she'd taken both the role and the letter out of jealousy. The performance is on what should be the last night of camp, but because of the rapid spread of polio back in New York City (where most of the girls are from), they're going to stay for a bit longer. Silver lining to the morbidly dark crowd, I suppose.

Looking Back
Summer camps for boys had been around since the late 1800s, but were new opportunities for girls in the 1910s. Parents wanted to let their children to get out the city and have clean, fresh air in healthier environments. Not all families could afford the costs for camps, but they could apply for scholarships and other charities in hopes of having their children's summer activities sponsored. In 1916, parents were especially motivated to get their children out of New York City, which was in the grip of a polio epidemic, killing one in four children and paralyzing many of the survivors. Over 9,000 children came down with the disease.


This book is dedicated to "my editor, Jennifer Hirsch, and historian Mark Speltz, with gratitude and friendship."

Rebecca's friend Rose was supposed to go to camp too, but her building is under polio quarantine.

Rebecca doesn't know how to swim, which should have come up in Rebecca to the Rescue when the family ponders if they have enough money to rent swimsuits.

I adore the camp counselor, Virginia, for attempting to be sure that a timid camper wasn't saddled with a nickname she hates.

I also love how Rebecca just quietly passes by the bacon without taking any (so she doesn't eat non-Kosher foods). She doesn't draw attention to herself and when someone else offers her a piece just politely declines. I don't eat meat on Fridays for religious reasons and I'm also pretty picky about foods but I've found that almost no one notices if I don't make a big deal about it. Later on marshmallows are mentioned, which aren't Kosher, but Rebecca wouldn't necessarily know that, and they don't actually eat them anyway because everyone's distracted by the reveal about the leg brace.

Well, that's depressing. This book was published four years ago, and praises Dr. Jonas Salk for developing the vaccine for polio, stating that "his pioneering work finally eliminated the threat of polio." In 2010 the disease was nearly wiped out, but now lower vaccination rates (due to unfounded fears ranging from side effects worse than polio to government tracking devices in the vaccines), it's making a comeback. It went from being almost completely eradicated in 2012 to a world health emergency just two years later. Remember: there is no cure for polio. It is not just mildly unpleasant. My grandparents remember their classmates dying of it. The vaccine is oral. You don't even need to deal with getting a shot. My daughters swallowed theirs enthusiastically because it's in a sweet liquid suspension. They were a few months old; my husband said it was their first soda pop.

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