I quickly got caught up in The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, an atmospheric, well-written coming of age novel set during the Great Depression. Anton DiSclafani creates a convincing voice for her first-person narrator, fifteen-year-old Thea Atwell, late of central Florida.
When we first meet her, Thea has been banished to the camp nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina: a place where wealthy Southern girls learn to become wealthy Southern wives. Unused to mingling with other young people, she surprises herself by adjusting to life amongst two hundred adolescent girls clad in white uniforms, living in cabins, riding horses.
The riding aspect—the nicely appointed barns, the practice rings, the challenge of competing with other girls—makes Yonahlossee “a little like paradise” for Thea. She has “a way with horses,” and can get them to do what she wants: “In order to ride well, you had to stop yourself from thinking, had to act on instinct alone, and this was something I’d always done well.” Thea believes that excelling at riding and jumping is the source of her power, what gives her the confidence to believe she will “emerge from this place.”
Lest you think this is a treacle-y tale of campfire camaraderie more suitable for 10-year-olds, know this: Thea is a “bad girl” (or at least she believes herself to be one). She gradually recounts the disastrous family “mess” that precipitated her arrival: how her parents “sent her away” from home and, most poignantly, from her twin brother Sam. We, as inhabitants of the 21st century, understand Thea’s story from a more liberated vantage point; but Thea and the people in her world see it quite differently, creating the book’s interesting tension.
Yet Thea’s own stance, even within the confines of her time and culture, still surprised me. She’s many years older by time she tells this story, but she only obliquely offers any hint of having gotten much wiser, of having gained any perspective on this incident in a longer life. Instead, Yonahlossee, and what preceded it, looms large; she sums up the rest in a few paragraphs. Given what’s happened and what she’s done (she is a victim, but not only a victim), perhaps that’s the best she can do.
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls made me think of how, in one way, children are the pawns and possessions of their parents, shaped by them for good, or ill, or both. But at the same time, each child has his or her own life, thoughts, and beliefs—unknown and unknowable by the parents.