Review: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, by Anton DiSclafani
Riverhead, 2013. 390 pp. $30
Fifteen-year-old Thea Atwell has it made. Her family, which consists of her parents, her twin brother, Sam, and herself, live in a manorial home on a thousand acres in Florida. She has her own pony and is an expert rider, a cool daredevil on horseback. It’s the early 1930s, but the Depression hasn’t touched her; a citrus farm supplements her father’s income as the local physician, the only doctor for miles around.
However, as the story opens, Thea has been banished, with no explanation or negotiation, to a girls’ riding camp in western North Carolina. Something has happened for which she takes the blame, though part of her objects, even as she struggles with her shame. Nevertheless, she believes her punishment to be temporary, for the summer only, yet you sense that she’s kidding herself. There’s a reason two hundred girls have gathered here, and it’s not just to improve their equestrienne skills or learn to become ladies in the Southern style, perfect in posture, manners, and elocution.
That reason, however, is a secret, which DiSclafani skillfully keeps, drawing out the tension. The careful reader may guess, as with much else that happens, but if so, that doesn’t matter. Thea’s story, a coming-of-age with a sharp edge, is well worth following, and she learns some very hard lessons at a young age. The rawness may put some readers off, but the author has much to say worth hearing about sex, gender, families, and the stifling nature of white Southern gentility, though many attitudes she explores are of course not peculiar to the South.
Perhaps to heighten Thea’s sense of dislocation, as if her shameful exile to a different state weren’t enough, DiSclafani has made her a hothouse flower. She has never attended school beyond her father’s lessons and never socialized with anyone her own age except Sam and their cousin, Georgie. Consequently, Thea has no clue how to act when suddenly thrust among hundreds of strangers, and every glance, every gesture, carries the potential for acceptance or ostracism.
I found this hard to swallow, both as a premise and in the writing. Some emotional transitions feel overwrought, especially when Thea flip-flops from, say, hope to misery within a single sentence, all of it told, none of it earned. That bothered me but was less pervasive than the trouble with her family life, which seems hermetically sealed beyond belief. Has she really never seen anyplace except the homestead? The Great Depression ravaged the South more than any other region of the United States, yet Thea has no sense of it. People still continue to get sick, so her father continues to collect his fees–or so the narrative says, as if they always had the money to pay. There are no shacks, no Hoovervilles, no pellagra, no summonses at midnight for dirt-poor patients who put off getting medical attention until they’re dying. There are no black people, either, or stories of violence, interracial or otherwise. The culture of the riding camp feels lived in and may reflect the time, but the story doesn’t quite feel Depression-era.
What’s true in Yonahlossee, however, is Thea’s hunger for love and acceptance, and how she goes about finding them, sometimes in forbidden ways. She also begins to question her family’s motives and behavior, realizing their dishonesty and selfishness, and, to some extent, how unfair they were to punish her. As the most sympathetic adult character in the book–significantly, from New England, not the South–tells her in confidence:
Parents never trust their children. I don’t know what happened exactly, and you don’t need to tell me. I believed for a long time that I had shamed my family. But it’s in a family’s best interest to make a child believe that.
This passage spoke loudly to me. What Thea does with this notion makes her story important enough to overlook narrative flaws or implausibilities.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.