Book review: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

By Paula Green

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'The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls' by Anton DiSclafani.
'The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls' by Anton DiSclafani.

St Louis-based Anton DiSclafani grew up in northern Carolina, and rode horses competitively at a national level, a fitting bio for the author of the New York Times' best-selling novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls.

Theadora, or Thea, is sent away for the summer (so she initially thinks) to stay at the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls as a form of punishment. She has packed minimal clothing (they wear uniforms, sleep in cabins, and have school lessons), along with her secrets. Really, it is a carpetbag of shame, guilt, love, longing and lust.

Thea has left behind mother, father, twin brother Sam, older cousin Georgie, an aunt and uncle, and a horse she has outgrown.

It is the time of the Great Depression. Thea has moved from Florida's heat and her privileged background as a doctor's daughter to the debutante boarding school (and riding camp) in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains. She has moved from an isolated life where family and the exquisite home were everything.

Thea, surprisingly, seems to make the transition to the riding camp easily - perhaps because it is a place where girls become "ladies". She weathers unfamiliar routines and experiences without completely losing her balance.

The key issue is how to navigate the insistent guilt and restock the gaping hole when her family keeps her at a painful distance.

The narrative is punctuated with family flashbacks as she tries to comprehend who she is (not that she is entirely aware of this process) and what she wants.

At times this was jarring, as the 15-year-old often seemed to display the insight of a mature woman. She bemoaned, for example, the fragmented knowledge she had of her mother. It's what many of us do as we get older - we become more interested in the parental background stories, but as a teenager (not the right label for 1930, I know) trying to grasp her mother as more than a mother stalled me.

What does work, however, is the rest of Thea. I was mesmerised by her choices, her boldness, her vulnerability. Her head and heart are in conflict as she experiences the threshold of womanhood. What she wants for the moment crashes hard against what she wants for the future.

DiSclafani manages to capture the complicated bombardments of puberty beautifully. Despite minor irritations, it's a gripping read.

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani (Headline $27.99)

- NZ Herald

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