Warning: Contains Plot Spoilers!
The Order of the Poison Oak
By Brent Hartinger
(for ages 12 and up)
Summer camp is different from high school. Something about spending the night. Things happen.
Geography Club’s Russel Middlebrook is back, and he and his friends are off to work as counselors at a summer camp. Brent Hartinger’s third novel is the story of Indian legends, skinny-dipping in moonlit coves, and passionate summer romance. It’s also the story of Russel’s latest club, The Order of the Poison Oak, a secret society dedicated to helping its members see life’s hidden beauty, and accept its sometimes painful sting.
Major Themes and Ideas
(1) Withstanding prejudice requires great inner-strength.
(2) Appearances can be deceiving, and do not reflect underlying character. True beauty lies within.
(3) Pity is different than genuine understanding.
(1) Russel begins the book feeling like he’s surrounded by “fire.” What is he really talking about? Why do you think the author chose to have Russel work at a camp for burn survivors? How and why does the author use other images of fire–e.g. forest fires, campfires, the legend of the birth of fire?
(2) At the beginning of the book, Russel ridicules the idea that “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Can words hurt you?
(3) Web tells Russel the Greek legend of Hercules and the Nemean lion, and how Hercules strangles the lion and ends up wearing his impenetrable skin. How does this story relate to the book’s theme? Later, Russel tells his kids that they have “magic” skin, and that hurtful words won’t be able to penetrate. Is it possible to have such skin? What is Russel really telling his kids?
(4) Gunnar tells Russel he doesn’t want a girlfriend, but Russel tries to hook him up with Em anyway. Is Russel wrong to ignore Gunnar’s wishes? Does it matter that things worked out for Em and Gunnar in the end?
(5) Russel tells his kids the Lenape Indian legend of Rainbow Crow. What is the moral of this story? What specific elements of this story appear in the book’s other storylines? (Example: Otto sings a song to get the attention of Russel, just like Rainbow Crow sings to get the attention of the Creator.)
(6) Russel calls the secret cove where he meets at night the Cove of the Ever-Changing Rock-Formation, because the rock looks different every time he visits. How does the rock’s changing form reflect what’s going on in each particular scene?
(7) What is the point of the Order of the Poison Oak? Who could be a member? Are you a member? Could anyone be?
(8) Do you think Web was using Russel? Does it make a difference that Russel spied on Web and Min in the Cover of the Ever-Changing Rock Formation? Is Web a bad guy, or just a cad?
(9) Russel think it’s ironic that he isn’t afraid to go into the forest fire to rescue Ian, but gets “all bent out of shape by wearing the ‘wrong’ brand of underwear to third period P.E.” Why do you think it takes something “important” for people to see things clearly? Have you ever had this reaction?
(10) In what ways is being gay like being a burn survivor? In what ways is it different?
(11) At the end of the book, Russel tells Gunnar and Min he feels like Superman, impervious to harm (not unlike Hercules with his impenetrable lion-skin). What changed?
Suggested Class Projects
(1) List the scenes in the book in which fire is somehow mentioned. As a group or individually, have students describe whether the fire is used as a metaphor, as a reflection of the theme, as foreshadowing, or as some combination of the three.
(2) Essay assignment: Who do you think is eligible for member in the Order of the Poison Oak? Would you want to be a member? Why or why not?
(3) Hold an induction ceremony so students can join the Order of the Poison Oak. Put on a skit of the legend of Rainbow Crow, make poison oak “leaves,” and have students recite the vow. Be creative.