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