Janet E. Cameron’s debut novel is not the whimsical or light-hearted story you might expect from the cheery title and cover. In fact, it’s a coming of age / coming out YA story that follows the general formula of these narratives, which are often heavy and intense, quite faithfully. Queer YA novelist Malinda Lo describes this formula as: “character struggles with homosexual desire in a homophobic world; character falls in tormented, transformative love; character is unceremoniously outed. Boom. In the fallout, things usually get a lot worse before they get better.” The narrative of Cinnamon Toast does fall into this pattern. But its insistence on avoiding moralizing, its lack of clear-cut resolutions, and its complex, sometimes unlikable protagonist make it a rewarding and unique coming of age queer YA.
The protagonist in Cinnamon Toast is Stephen Schulevitz, a teenager living in Riverside, Nova Scotia (population 1,816) in 1987. (This setting, by the way, is lovingly and in a brutally honest and authentic way brought to life. It’s clear that Cameron knows rural Nova Scotia very well.) The opening section of the novel situates Stephen in the throes of an epiphany: he’s in love with his best friend Mark. It’s a regular Saturday night at two in the morning, and he and Mark are doing what they always do, drinking warm beer and watching late-night infomercials. They’re in grade 12, and about to graduate in 3 months. Stephen’s first person perspective at first situates this moment of recognizing he loves Mark as a brand-new realization.
But after this short segment describing the revelation of love—akin to a prologue—Stephen immediately complicates the idea. In the first section proper of the novel, called “The past is right behind you,” Stephen explains, while diving into this childhood, that the development of his feelings for Mark and his growing awareness of his gay sexuality are in fact not new at all. He describes being bullied for not being traditionally masculine, the early dynamics of his friendship with Mark, having a crush on a male teacher, and even overhearing his mom say “‘I’m just so terrified he’ll grow up to be a homosexual and it’ll be all my fault’” when he was thirteen (p. 77). Stephen also details harming himself on numerous occasions in order to try to train himself out of having gay thoughts and desires.
The second section, “After the world ended,” moves the narrative back to the present and focuses on what Malinda Lo would categorize as Stephen’s “tormented, transformative love” and struggle with his desire. Now that Stephen has acknowledged his feelings to himself, his relationship with Mark is irrevocably changed. Every interaction with his best friend is now fraught, and Stephen no longer feels easy or comfortable around him. But Stephen also takes a new step: he comes out to his friend Lana, who accepts and supports him. It’s in this section that Stephen first feels a real impetus to tell Mark how he feels; while he doesn’t follow through on the decision for quite some time, this inevitable scene and the unknown outcome are the momentum that keeps the novel moving forward until its conclusion.
Although a positive experience in and of itself, Stephen coming out to Lana propels the turn towards trauma in the next section, which traces the action of a teenage house party. This is the part of the novel where, in Lo’s words, Stephen “is unceremoniously outed.” And it turns out to be Lana’s visiting long-distance boyfriend Adam, who is also gay and in the closet, who outs Stephen. Leading up to Adam’s decision to out both of them “for their own good” (p. 218) is Stephen’s first (boy) kiss (and more) with Adam, who knows Stephen is gay because Lana told him. The kiss is a heartbreaking and complex scene, where Stephen is simultaneously elated at his first gay sexual experience, terrified they are going to be caught, and feeling awful about how what he is doing is going to deeply hurt Lana, the only friend he has left.
Cameron plays with readers’ expectations of the genre in the outing scene. We know from Stephen’s descriptions of Riverside that, like in many small towns, difference of any kind is immediately and cruelly condemned. We know that homophobia—and other forms of oppression, like sexism—are rampant. (A quick but impactful scene where a girl at the party has just been sexually assaulted is a prominent reminder). But in the end, the scene where Stephen is publicly outed is not actually traumatic. The group of peers left at the party when Adam makes the announcement are mostly girls, who are ambivalent but then supportive, following the lead of one girl who decides to “toast” Stephen by pouring beer over his head and hugging him. The violent bullying at school at the hands of boys doesn’t come until slightly later, an unexpected, horrific incident that is all the more terrible for knowing how much worse it could have been.
As the summer before Stephen leaves for university in Halifax draws to a close, the narrative with Mark has still not been resolved. Mark has dropped out of high school, so Stephen is unsure if the school rumours have made their way to his friend. Although it seems unlikely they haven’t, Mark’s behaviour hasn’t changed. The climax of the narrative is the epitome of what Lo calls “things usually get a lot worse.” On his last night in Riverside at another house party, Stephen recklessly drinks to excess and reveals his feelings for Mark. The result is nothing short of repeated, violent homophobic assault that leaves Stephen with a broken nose, arm, and ribs.
Many queer YA coming out narratives construe leaving the small town for the more gay-friendly city as the “happy ending.” But Cameron does not end the novel after the violent encounter with Mark nor when Stephen leaves Riverside to start university. In the last section, “A new world,” readers have a glimpse of Stephen’s life after high school, and it is neither the horror he has left in Riverside nor the perfect, gay-positive paradise that readers might have imagined this new stage of Stephen’s life to be. The novel finally ends with a last (verbal) encounter with Mark after Stephen goes home for Christmas and Stephen’s return to Halifax, a potential boyfriend waiting in the wings.
The ending of the narrative with Mark is indicative of Cameron’s impulse to resist tidy resolutions or the instinct to perform easy, moralizing gestures. What Mark does to Stephen is horrific; however, Mark is never portrayed as a monster. Cameron is careful to show how heteronormative masculinity has also damaged Mark while he has also benefited. In many ways it has trapped Mark in Riverside, without a high school diploma and a pregnant girlfriend, while Stephen escapes to the city and higher education. But though Cameron allows Mark to sincerely ask Stephen’s forgiveness, she also allows Stephen to refuse to forgive him. Stephen leaves Riverside, returns to the city to a male friend who has professed his love for Stephen. Stephen is unsure what his feelings are. That is all the resolution that Cameron offers us.
The multiple subplots of the novel are left similarly open-ended. Stephen’s complicated relationship with Lana, who has unrequited feelings for her friend Stephen like Stephen has for Mark, only gradually and partially moves back to a friendship, with the remnants of their one-time awkward sexual encounter still lingering. The other prominent subplot involving Stephen’s distant father Stanley, who abandoned his wife and son when Stephen was a child, is even less resolved: before Stephen gets to spill his true feelings or find out if his father loves him, Stanley tells him: “I think this conversation has run its course” (p. 279). None of the relationships are simple, and not one of the characters is either wholly “good” or “bad.”
Stephen himself is the epitome of this resistance to black and white characterization. He’s both a deeply sympathetic and deeply flawed character. Cameron rightly resists the impulse other straight authors might give in to of making a gay character flawless in order to make him likable and thus prove that the homophobia directed at him is wrong. Of course the homophobia Stephen suffers is wrong; but he’s also a human being and a teenage boy who hurts many of the people closest to him in the novel, especially Lana and his mother. Cameron shows him desperately trying to fit in with his straight peers, even when it means saying sexist things and throwing women under the bus. She shows him swearing and lashing out at his overbearing mother, with her tendency to smother him because he is the only family she has. Cameron also shows Stephen’s fierce loyalty, vulnerability, intelligence, and love of reading.
It is because of its dedication to grey areas and the intricacies of a young gay character that Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World manages to rise above the coming out genre in which it places itself. Like many of the best queer YA coming of age books, Stephen comes of age not by figuring everything out and resolving all the complications of being a gay person in this world. Instead, Stephen moves into the adult sphere with only one fundamental lesson about the world’s inherent complexity. There are no easy answers; it is sometimes impossible to label people or things as good or bad. This is a gift to young readers far more valuable than an illusion of simple morality or easy resolutions could ever be.