The Shadow Thief

Le voleur d’ombres or The Shadow Thief by Marc Levy is a touching novel. It tells the story of a boy at two periods of his life: as a twelve year old arriving at a new school in a new town, whose father leaves home suddenly, his first love, and his early struggles to find his place in the school and in the town; and later as a young adult at medical school, falling in love, dealing with his mother’s death, and finding his true love. Le voleur d’ombres is a love story: the love between a mother and son, first love between a young boy and girl, and a son’s love for an absent father.

The protagonist of the novel has a unique power. He discovers that he can steal the shadows of others and that the shadows will speak with him and reveal the deepest wishes of their owners. With this power, he sets out to make the dreams of his friends come true. He helps the school janitor break free from his past to pursue his dreams. He helps his best friend break free from his parents’ expectations and go to medical school. He helps a fellow medical student discover why a young patient is starving himself to death. In the end, he also learns to pursue his own dreams.

Camp Nominingue is also a place where dreams can come true! Our philosophy is to give campers opportunities – to learn new skills, to meet new people, to take on new challenges, to make decisions each day about how they will use their time and what challenge they want to take on. For two hours each morning, campers participate in our instruction program. Each week, campers choose two activities from a list of twenty activities. For six days, campers will learn new skills and practise previously learned skills to increase their competency. Twice a day, at free swim, campers once again have a choice: they may go for a swim or take a canoe or a sailboat out; they may play tennis or take a basketball from the equipment room and head down to the basketball court; they may also choose to read a book or play tetherball back in the section. A staff: camper ratio of 1 to 3 ensures that each area is adequately supervised at this time of day.

Canoe tripping has always been an important activity at Nominingue, but it is important that each camper make the decision to head out on a canoe trip. Although we encourage the boys to go on a canoe trip, the choice is entirely up to them. Canoe trips range in length from an overnight up to 10 days. Length of canoe trip is dependent on the age, skill and experience of each camper.

Making friends is an important part of camp. Campers are put in small groups in their tent – 5 campers to a tent up to the age of thirteen and 3 to a tent for fourteen and fifteen year olds. Most canoe trip parties are also made up of 5 campers. These small groups are ideal for promoting the development of friendships among the campers. The counsellors are also present to help campers who do not find this process quite so easy. With 20% of the campers coming from outside the country and another 25% from outside Quebec, friendships formed at Nominingue are often from across the country and around the world.

We can’t promise that every camper will achieve all of his goals, take on every challenge or find a best friend…but Nominingue does provide every camper with the opportunity to do so. Achieving one’s dream is within the grasp of each and every camper!

Stonehenge 2000 BC

Stonehenge 2000 BC by Bernard Cornwell is not his best novel. At times the action seems to drag, quite atypical in a Cornwell novel. This might be because there is no history to rely on to move the plot forward. What is known about Stonehenge is based on archaeological work. Nothing is known about individuals who lived at that time.

The central character in the story is Saban, who is a young boy at the start of the story and is chosen the new chief at the end of the novel. In between, the chief, Saban’s father, is killed by Saban’s brother who, in turn, is killed by another of his brothers. At the same time as the struggle for political leadership is taking place, the gods are also at war to control the minds of the communities. Slaol, the sun, is the dominant god in Ratharryn, where Saban lives, while Lahanna, the moon, is dominant in the neighbouring community of Cathallo. It is these political and religious conflicts that lead the community of Ratharryn to build Stonehenge. The gods are omnipresent in the lives of the people, require regular sacrifice to be appeased and determine every major decision in the community.

When I was a camper at Nominingue in 1972, I can remember attending chapel on Sunday morning and occasionally singing a hymn found in the camp songbook. Chapel was definitely non-denominational, and Jewish, Protestant and Catholic campers could comfortably attend. Chapel is still non-denominational in 2012, and no hymns appear in the current songbook! Even the use of the term chapel is a bit of a misnomer. Each week, a group of campers or staff are in charge of chapel. Planning begins with the choice of a theme. “Friendship”, “Courage” or “determination” might be the chosen theme in a particular week. If middle camp is in charge of that week’s chapel, middle camp staff and campers will choose stories and songs related to the theme. Campers and staff who have something to say or who want to be involved, have the opportunity to speak to everyone in attendance.

For me, the best part of chapel is the chance to sit quietly looking out over “Bloodsucker Bay” or “Bullfrog Bay” if one wishes, reflecting on the theme, watching a duck or beaver swim past, listening to the wind blowing in the trees, feeling the heat of the sun slowly warming the morning air, and just enjoying the peace and beauty around me. Chapel is an opportunity to reflect on how lucky I am and how much I have to be thankful for!

Young Thugs

At Camp Nominingue, we are lucky in that most of the campers that we work with are very unlikely to ever become street gang members. In his book Young Thugs, Michael C. Chettleburgh identifies socio-economic forces as the primary reason why young people join gangs. Despite this, the motivations that lead young people to join gangs are the same motivations that lead youth to form groups, join teams and seek out friend groups.

Young Thugs is divided into two parts: the first focuses on the lure of street gangs, and the second on confronting and controlling street gangs. I found the first part particularly interesting and the second part a bit drier. Michael C. Chettleburgh stresses the necessity of dealing with the root causes of gang growth by improving job opportunities for youth in low income areas and improving programs to integrate immigrants into Canadian society. Chettleburgh also explains clearly how our prison system contributes to gang expansion and how the system is failing to rehabilitate any of its inmates.

The drive that leads young people to join gangs exists in all of us: we like to live in packs; we like to have a group where we can share ideas, protect and care for each other; we look for the camaraderie of the group, to enjoy recreation opportunities, and collaborate in the achievement of a common purpose. For many campers and staff at Camp Nominingue, this is exactly what camp achieves! Most campers stay at camp for two to three weeks. They live in tents in groups of five until the age of thirteen and then in groups of three until the age of fifteen. All campers learn and practice new skills in the company of other campers who are interested in learning similar skills. There is a canoe trip for everyone who wants to experience one – a group of five campers and two counsellors set out from camp for 3, 5, 7, 8 or 10 days, paddling, portaging and setting up camp each night at a new site.

For many campers and staff, Nominingue becomes their second home. In the fall, after the return from camp, camp stories fill their conversations. During the winter, camp friendships are maintained through common interests and activities, and modern technology. In the spring, planning for the summer and dreaming of canoe trips and other fun occupy the thoughts of many. There are numerous factors that contribute to the creation of this second home: the bonds of friendship that are forged on a challenging portage or while sitting in the tent during a storm; the support of a thoughtful counsellor in a time of need; the exhilaration of success achieved in learning a new skill, in winning a difficult challenge, or in coming together as a team.

The Archer’s Tale

The Archer’s Tale or Harlequin by Bernard Cornwell tells the story of the Battle of Crécy, fought in 1346 between the English and the French. It is however, much more the story of an archer, Thomas of Hookton, who joins an English troop of archers operating as mercenaries in France, after the destruction of his village. During the course of the novel, Thomas learns about his family history, of his father’s flight from his family and of his family’s Cathar heritage. He also learns of the primacy of the longbow in fourteenth century warfare.

The Battle of Crécy occurred towards the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War. The English were generally victorious, relying on their virtual monopoly of the longbow, against the French who relied on their knights and the crossbow. Eventually, canons and muskets would replace the bow as the primary weapons used for killing the enemy in warfare from a distance. The skills that enabled the English to dominate the battlefield were no longer required and archery went into decline.

Archery has been part of most camp programs forever, as it has at Nominingue. Archery was likely included as an activity in camp programs because of its use by the First Nation communities in Canada, but its use certainly pre-dates European arrival in North America. At camp, we teach the use of a re-curve bow as well as a compound bow. We shoot at targets. The goal is not to practise a hunting skill, but to practise a sport that requires concentration, aim and some strength, and a sport that is included in the summer Olympics.

In 2012, with the release of the movie Hunger Games, many bow shops noticed an upward spike in the purchase of bows, and archery clubs have experienced an increase in membership. I’m not sure that archery at camp will change much – we will continue to replace old and well-used equipment; we will continue to teach the skill of the archer; and campers will continue to enjoy the thrill of hitting the target…dead centre!

My library does not have the subsequent novels in the Grail Quest series, so I guess I will have to buy them. I am hooked!


Anthill by E.O. Wilson is a fascinating book. It tells the story of Raphael Semmes Cody, the only child of a poor couple from southern Alabama, who as a child falls in love with the wilderness tract around Lake Nokobee; who develops an interest in observing animals of all kinds, in particular ants; who is supported through university by a well-to-do uncle with designs on grooming him for the family business; whose undergraduate thesis becomes “The Anthill Chronicles”, which describes the rise and fall of ant colonies on the edge of Lake Nokobee; who chooses to go to Harvard Law School to specialize in environmental law; who finally joins the land development company whose intention is to develop the land around Lake Nokobee.

“The Anthill Chronicles” tell the story of one particular ant colony that, due to a variety of factors, expands far beyond the size of a typical ant colony. It grows beyond the ability of its members to feed themselves. Before a natural disaster occurs, the huge anthill is destroyed by humans. The writer draws a clear parallel between ants and humans. The ant colony is compared to the earth where population expansion is out of control, where the only way to survive is to attempt to expand continuously and the only way out must be destruction.

On his path towards the final crisis, when the land development company finally has the opportunity to purchase the Nokobee tract of land and to develop it, Raphael learns to walk a tightrope, to behave ethically in representing the interests of the company and, at the same time, to save the land that means so much to him. It is this ability, of one individual who remains true to his values, that shines through in Anthill!

At Camp Nominingue, we work hard to create situations that challenge boys to develop their skills, to test out their ideas, to demonstrate their leadership and to forge their independence. In camp, this might occur at instruction, as campers develop their skills working through four skill levels at a variety of instructional activities. It might happen during a large group activity during the tribal games or voyageur games, as campers learn to cooperate with their team-mates to lead their team to victory. Opportunities to run a triathlon, to perform on stage, to climb the wall, to carve a paddle, to hike a mountain or to participate in a canoe or sailing race are available almost every day. A canoe trip, whether an overnight for 8 year olds or a ten day for 15 year olds, is another opportunity for campers to shine – as one camper lights a fire in the rain, another carries a heavy pack over a distance of a kilometre and another camper learns to read a map as the canoes drift out in the middle of a lake.

This skill building, the challenges, the opportunities for decision-making and to take on a leadership role help develop a boy’s character. With the guidance of a skilled staff and outstanding role-models, boys at Camp Nominingue have the opportunity to develop their values and to test their identity. The ultimate end is personal growth, a gain in self-confidence, in independence and in his sense of responsibility. Camp is also a pretty fun way to spend the summer!

The Reader

It is easy to see why The Reader by Bernhard Schlink became a bestseller. I haven’t seen the movie with Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, but I would like to. If you have seen the movie, do read the book!

The Reader can be divided into three sections. In the first part, Michael Berg, the narrator, is a fifteen year-old growing up in post-war Germany. Off school and recovering from hepatitis, while walking near his home one day, he meets a woman, Hanna, who helps him out. Returning to her home, they embark on a relationship which lasts for many weeks, only to end suddenly when the woman disappears.  Part two takes place a few years later when, as a law student, Michael’s class attends a trial of a group of women who were guards in a concentration camp during the war. Hanna is one of the women on trial. The third part of the novel takes place over a period of ten years, the last ten years of Hanna’s imprisonment.

What struck me in the first part of the novel was Bernhard Schlink’s description of adolescence.

Does everyone feel this way? When I was young, I was perpetually overconfident or insecure. Either I felt completely useless, unattractive, and worthless, or that I was pretty much a success, and everything I did was bound to succeed. When I was confident, I could overcome the hardest challenges. But all it took was the smallest setback for me to be sure that I was utterly worthless. Regaining my self-confidence had nothing to do with success; every goal I set myself, every recognition I craved made anything I actually did seem paltry by comparison, and whether I experienced it as a failure or triumph was utterly dependent on my mood.

This characterization rings true to me, not necessarily for every adolescent, but definitely for many. The mood swings of teenagers are frequent. I see it in the campers at Nominingue and I see it in my daughter. I also remember how I was affected when I was the same age.

Nominingue is a community where boys from 7 to 15 spend between a week and three weeks living in tents, learning new skills and setting off on canoe trips. Each session, there are between twenty-five and fifty 14 and 15 year olds at camp. The good counsellor recognizes that mood swings are a normal part of growing up for many kids. These counsellors ensure that they are present to listen, to encourage, to offer advice when asked, and to forge a supportive relationship with each and every camper. Having these role models present is one way that camps like Nominingue help boys through the trials and tribulations of adolescence.

The Fort

I have greatly enjoyed reading novels by Bernard Cornwell in the last 8 months, after intentionally avoiding them for years, assuming that he wrote pop historical fiction. I began with the Sharpe series and continued with the Saxon stories. I recently found The Fort at the local public library. The Fort tells the story of the battle of Majabigwaduce, which took place in northern Maine between the English navy and American army and navy during the American War of Independence. The English navy sailed from Halifax in the summer of 1779, with about 800 soldiers and three small ships, with orders to build a fort and secure the port of Majabigwaduce for England. The government of Massachusetts responded by sending an attacking force of 18 warships and 21 troop ships to remove the English threat from the Maine coast.

The American navy was led by Commodore Saltonstall and the ground troops by Solomon Lovell, a member of the State Assembly. Within 24 hours of arriving on the Majabigwaduce River, the Americans had captured an island gun-battery which could prevent their ships from entering the harbour and landed their armed forces and captured the heights above the still semi-built Fort that was being constructed by the English under the leadership of Brigadier MacLean. What followed was disaster for the besiegers. Saltanstall refused to attack the harbour without the assurance that the army would first attack the fort, citing the logic that even if he defeated the three English sloops, he could not take the fort. Lovell, in turn, refused to attack the fort without the assurance of a naval attack on the harbour. For more than two weeks, the indecision continued, as American morale slowly declined. Finally, a relief fleet of English ships arrived to relieve the siege and, rather than allow any of its ships fall into English hands, most of the almost 40 American ships were burned. Majabigwaduce was to become the last British post surrendered to the Americans during the War of Independence!

As I was reading The Fort, I thought about how decisions are taken at Nominingue. The senior staff meets each morning for a briefing and to hear reports as to what is happening in each sphere of the camp. The lower camp section director will make decisions for the campers and staff in lower camp. The decisions he makes rely heavily on the feedback and communication he receives from his head counsellors and counsellors. In the same way, the program director makes decisions which affect all camps, as well as the waterfront and the tripping program. On canoe trips, although one of the counsellors is the trip leader, the counsellors frequently consult and work towards a consensus decision.

Decision making works when roles are clearly defined and processes are in place to deal with regular, daily occurrences as well as with special situations. Before heading out on a canoe trip, staff need to consider alternative campsites, have planned exit routes for every stage of a trip and been able to discuss options in case of emergency. It is all the advance planning that ensures that decisions are made in a timely and effective manner, with the result that those decisions are accepted by the staff and campers involved.


Diplomatic Incidents and the Integration of International Campers

My mother is one of my great resources for reading material. She belongs to a couple of book clubs and reads a wide variety of books. This book was chosen as a light read while she was on a recent vacation. Diplomatic Incidents by Cherry Denman tells about the ups and downs of life in the foreign-service, living around the world and raising one’s family at the same time. Cherry Denman has spent over twenty years as the wife of a British diplomat, spending time in Cyprus, Hong Kong, Beijing and Libya. At times a travel log, frequently a source of advice to prospective travelers and families planning to live abroad, and regularly quite funny, Diplomatic Incidents is an interesting and worthwhile read.

Denman describes the difficulties of arriving in a new country, without friends, without a home, without knowing the language or the customs, and then to try to fit in gracefully. This experience is lived each summer by some campers who come to Camp Nominingue. 20% of our campers come from outside Canada, from the States, from Mexico, from Europe and from Asia. Some of these campers do speak English or French, but some do not; some are arriving in Canada for the first time. At camp, they will live in a platform tent. During the day, the walls may be rolled up to let in the sun and the wind. The rain will fall on a fly above their heads; birds and squirrels will be heard and seen from their beds. The culture shock that these campers face must be incredible!

There is a chapter about toilets in foreign lands. Being from Britain, Ms. Denman is used to having a seat, and a clean one, when it is time to use the lavatory. She describes her attempts to use public washrooms with “holes” in the floor requiring the user to squat, surrounded by inquisitive locals; trying to find privacy in the desert and other bathroom adventures. At Nominingue, most campers set off on canoe trips, from an overnight down the lake to a 10-day trip in Parc de La Vérendrye, two hours north of camp. On some camp sites, the Park service has dug a pit toilet and placed a wooden box with a hole in the center. Sometimes there is a toilet seat with a lid, sometimes not. Usually there is a cloud of flies swarming the hole. On other campsites, there is no toilet box, and going to the bathroom requires digging a hole. For a camper heading off on his first canoe trip, I imagine that going to the bathroom can be a novel and maybe forbidding experience.

Nominingue is a friendly place that works hard to integrate these new campers into its culture, its traditions and routines. Its staff sets the example and each tent counsellor helps the campers in their tent find their place at camp. The wide variety of learning experiences also provide campers from varied backgrounds with the opportunity to find their niche, to thrive and to feel accepted in this new environment. Many of these new international campers will return year after year to Nominingue, enriching the lives of all the campers at the same time as Nominingue, camp life and the Canadian wilderness enrich and change their lives!


Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk is a lyrical description of one of the great cities of the world by a Nobel Prize winning writer. Like much of his writing, it is not easy to read Orhan Pamuk. If one is on the lookout for action, this is not the book to read. Istanbul is a very personal vision of the city. Descriptions of its buildings, its streets, of ships passing through the Bosphorus, its people, its writers, its history… intermingle with descriptions of Pamuk’s schooling, his first love, his parents’ conflicts and finally his decision to become a writer.

Pamuk writes in detail about the “huzun” or melancholy feeling of Istanbul. He describes how this feeling pervades the city and its people. He also tries to identify the root of the “huzun” of Istanbul – an impoverished city with the ruins of its past glory ever-present.

Camp Nominingue has its own history. Founded in 1925, it is one of the older summer camps in Quebec and in Canada. Owned by the Van Wagner family since its inception, the camp has adapted over the years to fit the changing needs of its campers, but remains unchanged in its essence – Nominingue is an outdoor camp where boys live in tents and are still encouraged to travel the northern lakes of Quebec on a canoe trip; campers learn outdoor skills that they will be able to practise for a lifetime; and the camp provides opportunities for boys to make choices and take decisions that help them develop their independence and their confidence.

A camp like Nominingue also has images and sounds that every camper who has ever walked its paths, swam its lake or paddled its canoe-trip routes will recognize: the white birch trees shading the tent-line; a loon cry over the lake as darkness settles over the camp; the poplar leaves blowing in the breeze; the gong being hammered at lunch-time; the silent procession through the woods towards council ring; the scream of a jumper flying off the rocks at Acapulco; the “Pony-Express” horde of campers and staff charging down the hill towards the Canadian-base in the athletic field; campers leaning over a fire blowing on the embers to get the bark or twigs to flame; the totem pole standing sentinel on honk-your-horn-hill; or the reciting of “Rise free from care before the dawn and seek adventure…”.

All that is needed is for Nominingue to find its Orhan Pamuk!

Why are boys failing school?

Can a boys’ camp experience help counterbalance this effect?

I was looking at back issues of Québec Science recently. In the November 2010 issue, I came across an article by Égide Royer, a psychologist and professor at Laval University, entitled “Des garçons sur le carreau”. P. 32-34

Égide Royer writes: « Plusieurs études rapportent en effet que les enseignants interagissent d’une manière différente avec leurs élèves selon le sexe de ceux-ci. Les garçons reçoivent plus de commentaires négatifs ou de désapprobation, font plus fréquemment l’objet de critiques et voient leurs idées rejetées plus souvent que les filles. Les enseignants utilisent un ton plus négatif pour formuler ces critiques. Par exemple, on observe que les enseignants de maternelle haussent le ton pour composer avec les comportements agressifs lorsqu’il s’agit d’un gars. »

Royer observes that teachers interact differently with students based on their sex – boys receive more negative feedback; boys are more frequently criticized; boys have their ideas rejected more frequently. As well, teachers use a more negative tone with boys when expressing their criticism. In response to aggressive behaviour, teachers raise their voice more when it is a boy who is exhibiting the behaviour.

He goes on to say that teachers perceive boys’ behaviour as more disruptive, oppositional and intimidating. Teachers will act to correct or end boys’ behaviour more frequently. The result is that for many boys, the school day is filled with negative reinforcement, criticism and punishment.

A boys’ summer camp like Nominingue fills an important niche for many boys. Campers spend the day out-of-doors and then sleep in a tent each evening. The program is active and offers many opportunities for challenge, as well many opportunities to achieve something positive each day. Campers are given daily opportunities to make choices about how they want to spend their time.

Morning instruction plays an important role in our program: boys choose one from a list of twenty skill-based activities such as climbing, woodworking, sailing, archery or mountain biking; they practise this skill for an hour per day for six days aiming to learn or improve their skills.

Travelling the Canadian wilderness in a canoe is another essential component of our program. There is a canoe trip available for every camper, with the duration and degree of difficulty established according to the camper’s age and experience. Most campers at Nominingue choose to go on a canoe trip and this experience often becomes central to the memories that they bring home at the conclusion of camp.

Our program ensures that campers at Nominingue spend a good part of the day in activities of their choosing. Happy campers are the result – campers are challenged at a level at which they can achieve. Unlike school, there is no frequent need to correct bad behaviour and when the staff raises its voice, it is usually in a cheer or a shout of encouragement!