Wednesday, December 03, 2014

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani

To describe this book is to make it sound awful and off-putting. As Michiko Kakutani pointed out in the New York Times, it’s kind of a Young Adult/Historical Romance mashup. It’s also a coming-of-age novel with an (at times) unsympathetic teenage protagonist and features some disturbing sexual shenanigans between a boarding school headmaster and that teenager. Nevertheless this book is more than just what these descriptions imply, and it’s a very good read.

Thea Atwell has been sent, at age 15, to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, a year-round boarding school in North Carolina. In the 1930’s at the height of the Depression, the camp is a place where well-heeled southern girls ride horses, practice their social skills, and wait to get married. Thea’s parents have installed her at the school against her will, for some transgression that the author spends the rest of the novel slowly revealing, generating at times almost unbearable tension and anxiety.

Thea’s crime, of course, has to do with sex, and a boy. But it’s a lot more complicated than that: The boy in question is her cousin, and an act of violence has left this boy injured to an extent that isn’t fully revealed until quite late in the book. Thus DiSclafani neatly sidesteps the double standard issue of the boy’s culpability and possible consequences, while saddling Thea with some real guilt in addition to the feelings of shame imposed by her family and society for breaking the conduct codes of the time.

Thea is not always likeable, but she is very authentic. Her intelligence and sexual energy (and that of all the girls at the school) cannot be contained or managed in the way the adults in charge think it can and should be. The whole school simmers with hormones and repression. Readers can get kinda sweaty and uncomfortable reading this book, but will also be caught up in the drama.

Is this a Young Adult novel? I don’t think so. Adult readers will be very interested in DiSclafani’s portrayal of Thea’s parents and their motivations, and to the behaviors of all the adults. Despite the heat and the suspense, this is very much a character-driven story, one that moves beyond obvious emotions and easy answers.

(Book 22, 2014)


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