It’s the little details that veterans of overnight camp might recognize, according to Ari Goelman, the King of Prussia native whose first novel for young readers, The Path of Names, is set at an overnight camp based on his alma mater, Camp Galil.
There is a rule at Galil, for example, that the campers must remain outside the dining hall until some staff are inside. In the novel, which is set at the fictional Camp Arava, the main character, Dahlia Sherman, sarcastically says to her brother, a beloved staff member, “I know. One counselor for each table or we can’t come inside. No telling what we would do without a counselor at our table.”
Goelman, 40, said the novel started as a short story that he’d written years ago and then tucked away because he was trying to pack too much into it.
When he began work on it again, he said he found he had “an appreciation for that summer camp setting.” And since many of his 20 published stories deal in fantasy and science fiction, he decided to add elements of mysterious occurrences and flights of fantasy to the more realistic setting of overnight camp.
The Path of Names, which Goelman describes as a coming-of-age story, is about 13-year-old Dahlia Sherman who isn’t happy about going off to camp for the first time. But she finds herself intrigued by the happenings at camp, including seeing two young girls walk through the wall of her cabin and an overgrown hedge maze that none of the campers can enter.
Goelman spent his summers from 1983 until 1997 as a camper, counselor and ultimately camp director at Galil, the camp in Ottsville, Pa., that is affiliated with Habonim Dror, Israel’s labor Zionist movement.
There is an inherent mystery to the overnight camp experience, said the author, who attended Ramah Day Camp as a young child and now lives in Vancouver, Canada.
“For younger kids especially, there is something exciting and nerve-racking about their first experience away from their parents,” said Goelman.
In a telephone interview following a recent book-signing event co-sponsored by Galil and The Collaborative, a local young professionals organization, Goelman said he enjoyed seeing fellow Galil alumni and hearing some of his former campers’ reactions to parts of the book that struck them as familiar.
After working so long on a novel — his first — to actually read it aloud and see peoples’ reactions was lots of fun, said Goelman, who holds a doctorate in urban studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and teaches at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia.
The author said he always felt that Galil was unique among Jewish overnight camps.
“The one thing that always struck me about Galil, and strikes me now, is there’s a real acceptance of oddity and weirdness.”
It was generally a pretty accepting place, said Goelman, and a non-conformist like his lead character could find a way to fit in.
Goelman knows that things at Galil and other camps have changed over the years— in the age of helicopter parents and concern over lawsuits if something goes wrong, there is, for example, greater supervision by counselors, he said — but it’s for the better.
“I think it would have probably done me some good to have more oversight,” said Goelman, a father of three young children. “But, of course, that might be the parent in me.”