11/10/13 BOOK REVIEW: THE YONAHLOSSEE RIDING CAMP FOR GIRLS BY ANTON DiSCLAFANI
I like a good mystery, especially a mystery embedded in a mainstream novel. So I was hooked when Anton DiSclafani started dropping hints of an unnamed “trouble” at home in the first chapter of her debut novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls. The “trouble” is the reason fifteen-year-old Thea Atwell’s parents have sent her away from home in Florida to a boarding school where wealthy young women learn to be accomplished equestriennes in the mountains of North Carolina.
Thea is deeply upset about having to leave her idyllic life in Florida. For as long as she can remember, she and her twin brother, Sam, had been allowed to run free through their parents’ orange groves, she on her pony, Sasi, and Sam hunting for lizards, snakes, and other treasures of nature. Home schooled by their father, they rarely had contact with other children, except their cousin, Georgie, who came to visit often, but Thea didn’t feel isolated. She didn’t miss what she’d never had.
Yonahlosse is a new world for her, filled with other girls, housemothers, teachers, the kind headmaster and the daunting headmistress, who is his wife. Despite her lack of experience, Thea grasps the politics of boarding school quickly, recognizing which girls to befriend and which to avoid. She also realizes that these girls’ families have more money than hers, although the year is 1930, at the beginning of the Great Depression, and some of those circumstances are about to change.
As Thea carves out her life at school, DiSclafani skillfully weaves in backstory about her life in Florida and, drop by drop, the events leading to her departure. As the backstory unfolded, I began to think I knew what the “trouble” was—a scandalous relationship with a boy—but at that point DiSclafani is only laying the groundwork for what is about to happen. She’s also giving clues about Thea’s parents—the gorgeous mother, whose beauty Thea could never hope to equal, and the exacting father, whom Thea strives diligently to please.
At Yonahlossee, Thea chooses lighthearted, compassionate Sissy, owner of expensive jewelry and perfume, to be her best friend. She’s also intrigued by Leona, winner of the previous year’s Spring Show first-place riding award, and by the headmaster, Mr. Holmes. Leona is the only other girl who rides as well as Thea does, so she isn’t surprised by Leona’s cool treatment of her. Mr. Holmes’ kindness toward Thea draws her to him in a surrogate father sort of way until she develops a crush on him and finds ways to spend more time with him. With opportunity, their relationship escalates into romantic and then sexual involvement.
Thea’s time with Mr. Holmes also makes her begin to question what has happened to her. Her parents led her to believe the choice of Yonahlossee for her was totally random, but the truth leaks out that her mother and Mrs. Holmes are old friends. When Thea pours out her sadness for having shamed her family, Mr. Holmes says, “You have a brother, correct? Did they send him away, too?” And later, he says, “They traded you, Thea. They sent you here and kept your brother.”
Throughout the novel, DiSclafani paints Thea in all her adolescent complexity—childish, vulnerable, scheming, seductive, loyal, selfish, lonely, and strong. One reason she clings to Mr. Holmes is he makes her think she’s not as bad as she assumed she was. But if she isn’t who she thought she was, then who is she? A defining moment comes at the Spring Show when Thea and Leona are the final contenders for the first-place riding award. Thea knows she can win, but Leona’s family has recently lost their fortune, forcing Leona to give her beloved horse to Yonahlossee to pay her tuition, and the blow of losing first place may be more than she can handle. The choice is Thea’s, and she makes it boldly.
But perhaps more revealing of the person Thea has become is her reaction to her best friend’s fall from grace when Sissy is caught secretly meeting a boy after curfew.
DiSclafani has created a many-sided character who evoked a range of reactions from me as a reader. I pitied her, I was disgusted with her, I rooted for her, I was angry with her, but I was never bored with her. In fact I’d love to meet the woman she becomes at age twenty-five or thirty.
To find out some of DiSclafani’s thoughts about Thea and other aspects of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, join me here on December 10 for an interview with the author.