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Book Review: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani (Riverhead Books; 400 pages; $27.95).

yonahlossee1.jpgWe’ve all known girls like Thea Atwell—girls who made mistakes so big they were sent away, fast girls, precocious girls, daring girls.  Thea narrates Anton DiSclafani’s debut novel The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, an exquisite period piece and a provocative, passionate, and bold coming-of-age tale. Much more than just a precocious teen, Thea is a magnificently well-drawn character, a trail-blazer, wholly modern, and a feminist (before there was such a thing).  No one who reads this story will be able to forget Thea, one of the most memorable characters in fiction today.

Exiled from her family, from her Florida home, and from her beloved horse, Sasi, Thea is sent to a school for girls in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.  In a voice that is at times worldly and sometimes naïve, Thea reveals, “It was called the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, but it was neither a camp nor a place for girls.  We were supposed to be made ladies here.”

Her place in the family had once been well-defined, but now Thea is displaced and struggling, “a confused, wronged girl” whose parents punish her for a misdeed by banishing her.  Her twin brother, Sam, who commits a transgression of his own, is left unpunished.

DiSclafani uses two story arcs, one present and one past, to tell her story.  The two narratives are like Thea herself—on the cusp of something.  Each story arc leads up to a shuddering climax, while Thea herself is a character also on the cusp, at a crossroads of adulthood, womanhood, and budding sexuality.

Thea slowly comes to realize it is a man’s world.  Whether she is in Florida or in North Carolina, she must obey either her father or the headmaster.  She must obey their rules and abide by their laws.  And she is not alone.  At Yonahlossee, her new friends must also follow the dictates of their fathers and the depressed economy.  Friends like Leona, mistress of the showing arena, who must leave her horse behind when her father can no longer afford his daughter’s tuition.  They are “but daughters.” It’s no wonder these girls ride horses: only in the saddle do they have any semblance of control.

Interestingly, Thea seems to assume the role that others have assigned her at Yonahlossee.  “Did my parents hope I’d been taught a lesson?  They thought they’d sent me somewhere safe.  Away from men, away from cousins…If my parents had kept me home, I might have learned their lesson.”  Thea, though, chafes at convention.  She is a girl who wants too much and who desires desperately, a girl who has been introduced to the world of men and finds she likes this world, even if she does not always understand it.  She is fearless, an attribute that aids her “in the [horse] ring” but “badly in life.”

At fifteen, Thea wants to explore who she is and what and where the boundaries are.  Today, her rebellion is a rite of passage, but it was unusual in 1931 for a girl to behave as risky as Thea does in the novel.  Since her parents have expelled her, she feels that there is nothing left for her to lose.

With reckless abandon, Thea sets her sights on the headmaster, Mr. Holmes.  And what Thea wants, she usually finds a way to get.  She knows “what it was like to want, to desire so intensely” that she is “willing to throw everything else into its fire.”

When DiSclafani reveals both the shocking act that led to Thea’s expulsion and the scandalous way in which she leaves Yonahlossee,

Anton DiSclafani

Anton DiSclafani

you are speechless, shaken, and consumed with awe.  DiSclafani writes, “I wanted everything.  I wanted my cousin.  I wanted Mr. Holmes.  I was a girl, I learned, who got what she wanted, but not without sadness, not without cutting a swatch of destruction so wide it consumed my family.  And almost me.  I almost fell into it, with them.  I almost lost myself.”

Yet it is only because of her intense desire and wildness that Thea is able to forge her own path, a place in the ring where she rules supreme and where fathers and headmasters are absent.  Neither her parents nor Thea expected this surprising turn of events when Thea was cast out.   In the end, Yonahlossee shows Thea her life is hers and no one else’s. Thea must “lay claim to it.”

Penetratingly plot-driven, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a literary stunner and will be one of the most talked-about novels of the year.  Get a head start and read it now.








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Interview with Anton DiSclafani, Author of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani (Riverhead Books; 400 pages; $27.95).

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Anton, for letting me ask you these questions.  The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, your debut novel, is a masterful and exquisite period piece.  Did you always want to be a writer?


Anton DiSclafani alt (c) Nina Subin (2)Anton DiSclafani: Thank you for the questions!  And the compliment.  I did not always want to be a writer–for a long time I wanted to be a professional horseback rider, and then I went to college and took a creative writing course, and gradually the path became clear.  But I didn’t scribble away in journals in elementary school, and if I were stuck on a deserted island I wouldn’t be writing.  I’d be trying to figure out a way to ferment coconut juice so I could have wine.  


JB: How would you describe your book in ten words or less?


AD: Girl sent away to a new world.   


JB: What provided the impetus for The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls?


AD: I love the Blowing Rock [North Carolina] area, where the book is set, and so first came the place, and then the girl, and then her crime.  I worked backwards from setting; it’s impossible for me to imagine this book on a beach, or in the tundra.   


JB: How did you come up with the title? 


AD: There is a real Camp Yonahlossee, in Blowing Rock, but it’s called that, and not The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls.  I just love the rhythm of it.  But honestly, I can’t remember coming up with it, exactly.  


JB: What was it about the 1930s and the Great Depression that prompted you to set your story in that era?


AD: I wanted to write about the beginning of the Depression, when everyone thought the worst might be over.  Little did they know…and that’s where I wanted to set my story, on the cusp of something awful, in that hopeful to them, hopeless to us, moment.   


JB: Like your main character, Thea, you grew up in Florida, where you rode horses.  I often hear that novelists should write what they know best.   Is that true for you?


AD: Yes and no.  It’s difficult to write about something that’s technical–horseback riding, or tennis, etc–without knowing it really well, and knowing something really well usually means doing it.  I can’t imagine learning all about bridge but never playing bridge.  I can always tell when someone who isn’t a rider, or a horse person, writes about horses, but most readers probably can’t.  Same with bridge–not being an expert, I could probably fool 99% of my readership.  Does the expert 1% really matter?  I’m not sure.  


JB: Do you have a favorite character in your story?  If so, who, and why?


AD: Hmm…good question.  I like Leona, the character in the book who’s least like me.   But most like me, perhaps, in her obsessive tendencies.   


JB: Are any of your characters based on real people?


AD: No.  Not a single one.   


JB: Thea is so mature and wise by the end of the novel, prepared to make her own way on her own terms.  She’s so modern and ahead of her time.  Is Thea a feminist in a time when feminism did not exist?


AD: Yes.  I said in another interview that she was an “unconscious feminist” and my husband made fun of me for weeks (as in, she’s unconscious and a feminist!) so maybe I should say she’s unconsciously a feminist.  Semantics aside, yes, absolutely, Thea is a feminist.   


JB: If you had set the story in 2013, how would it have been different?  Would Sam have been punished?  Would Thea?


AD: I don’t think it would be a story in 2013.  At least not the same story.  The punishments meted out to the characters are so dependent on the particular morals of the day.  Things happened in the book that would still be frowned upon today, yes, but the way information is handled now seems so different to me.  


Is it possible now, to completely remove yourself from the stream of information?  Perhaps the first, and biggest way the story would be different is that Thea wouldn’t have been so isolated.  She would have gone to school, and met other children.   


JB: How different would Thea and her life have been had she not been exiled from her family at 15?


AD: Oh, so much different, in so many endless ways.   


JB: You teach creative writing at Washington University.  How has teaching writing made you a better author?


AD: Teaching makes me a better person.  Well, to back up, having a job makes me a better person–a sense of purpose, getting up in the morning and being accountable to something besides my laptop.  I’m one of those boring people who needs routine and structure, and plenty of it.  I also have an insane need to be busy at all times, so teaching satisfies my need to be busy and to have structure and still leaves time for writing.  And teaching doesn’t feel like work.  Not even the tedious parts of it.  To be fair, I teach really excellent students at a really excellent school.  I find my time in the classroom utterly energizing–it’s like having a captive book club.  


JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls?


AD: Not knowing if it was going to sell, and being sure at many times during the process that it would not.   


JB: Did you learn anything new about yourself in the midst of writing and editing this book?


AD: I have more patience than I thought.   


JB: What is a typical day of writing like for you?


AD: I get up a few hours before my earliest obligation–usually teaching–and write for two or so hours.  I can revise for longer than that, but if I’m writing new material, I lose steam after those few hours.  I also look at writing like a job, and set page limits (it’s generally one single-spaced page a day) and try not to let myself off the hook too often.  


Sometimes what I write is horrible, yes, but first of all, I won’t know that until later, when I go back and read everything as a whole, and second of all, the muse can’t visit you if you’re not sitting in front of your computer.  Or something like that.  


JB: Please describe your publication process.  Did you get any rejection letters?  How many drafts did the story go through? How were earlier versions of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls different from the final copy?


AD: The earlier versions are pretty different, though the main plot points and characters are the same.  I revised first with my agent and then with my editor.  And Yonahlossee was the first piece of writing I’d had accepted, so yes, I’d gotten a lot of rejection letters before that, from fellowships, literary journals, agents, etc.   


JB: What do you like to do when you are not writing?


AD: Read, cook, take my dog on walks, and ride horses.  I spend a lot of time talking to my family on the phone (my parents live in Florida, my sister lives in Texas).  I also seem to go to the grocery store five times a week.  My husband says I’m in constant motion.  


JB: Who are some of your favorite authors and what are some of your favorite books?


AD: The Gardens of Kyoto by Kate Walbert, The Known World by Edward P. Jones, Arcadia by Lauren Groff.  


JB: Will you go on a book tour?  If so, which cities will you visit?


AD: Yes.  I’ll go from city to city in North Carolina and Florida, and then Houston, then Chicago, then northern California.  And of course I’ll start in St. Louis, where I live.   


JB: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is already getting a lot of buzz.  Did you have any idea while writing it that it could be big?


AD: No.   


JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls?yonahlossee


AD: I hope they feel some sort of sympathy for Thea and her world.   


JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?


AD: Yes, a novel set in a modern-day town in Georgia.  I’m only in the beginning stages.   


JB: Thanks, Anton, for a wonderful interview.  Good luck with the book!


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