I was still more child than adult. I was not a monster but a confused, wronged girl. It would be years, though, before I would understand. In those two weeks at home, Mother had been angry, Father mainly mute, as if there was nothing to be said. They blamed me. And so I came to Yonahlossee a person worthy of blame. – from The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls –
Thea Atwell is only fifteen, a girl growing into a young woman, when she is expelled from her home in Florida and sent to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls. The year is 1930 and the Great Depression is destroying businesses and families. But for Thea, the destruction is closer to home and more personal. Cast from her family, Thea finds herself surrounded by other young women and the singular love of horses as she struggles to understand and forgive herself for a mistake whose consequences have separated a family, and caused irreparable harm to those she has loved.
Anton DiSclafani’s debut novel is a coming of age story of a strong-willed young woman who finds herself alone in the world after a terrible mistake. Thea is a complex and beautifully rendered character. She has grown up in a sheltered home, raised by a mother who seems perfect in her beauty and demeanor. Sexuality is something hidden, not discussed, and has a feeling of shame attached to it. Thea shares her life with a twin brother, a boy who loves to explore the natural world. They are so close, and yet, Thea is growing up and discovering her body and emotions which are filled with sexual yearning.
The novel opens with Thea’s arrival at the riding camp – which is actually more of a boarding school for girls that includes riding lessons. It is there that Thea discovers the intimacy of friendship with other young women who are experiencing many of the same emotions and feelings. There is the expected rivalry between the girls which is accentuated by the competition of riding horses.
DiSclafani skillfully captures the flavor of growing up as a young woman during the 1930’s when women were not expected to pursue academia, and open sexuality was taboo. Rich and atmospheric, DiSclafani’s writing captured my imagination. The novel explores family loyalty, love, class, and self-discovery. Embedded in the story is the love of horses and how connecting with animals can be emotionally healing.
Thea is a character who I grew to love as the novel progressed. I loved her feisty attitude, and felt sadness for her situation…which admittedly she makes worse for herself as the story unfolds. Thea’s growth is painful, something which tugged at my heartstrings and reminded me of the difficulty of growing up and searching for oneself.
I predict that The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls will become a favorite of book clubs. Its themes and lovely evocation of the South, as well as the conflicts which arise, will certainly provide for rich discussion. Anton DiSclafani has penned a stunning first novel.
FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review.