Set in the years 1930-31, while the Depression continues to take its toll on the US economy, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls tells the story of 15-year-old Thea Atwell. Thea and her twin brother Sam live a charmed life in central Florida. Their father is a doctor and their mother is a beauty who has created a lovely home for her family in the middle of nowhere. Thea and Sam are close, as twins often are, but moreso because there are no other children around. Their only other companion is their cousin Georgie, two years older and living with his parents in Gainesville. Thanks to their father’s profession as a doctor and their ownership of citrus land, the Atwells are weathering the depression fairly well. Thea owns a pony and is obsessed with riding. Sam is a born naturalist and has a gentle way with both people and animals. Georgie is their adored cousin and friend until something horrible happens and the loving family unit is ripped apart.
As the story begins, Thea’s father is taking her to North Carolina to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls. We know that the horrible thing has happened and that Thea, the narrator, has had a key role in said horrible thing. She is under the impression that she is attending the camp as punishment for a couple of months until summer is over and she can return home. Not until much later does she learn that she will be staying for the school year. As she makes her way through this year, we learn piece by piece what exactly happened back in Florida.
The school isn’t much as far as educating young women academically. It’s more of a “finishing school” where girls of wealthy families learn manners, elocution and riding. For Thea, it’s the first time she has had to be with peers, live with them and be known by others not of the family unit. Initially, she is resistant and uncomfortable, but she does grow to love the place and make close friendships. But the very feelings and impulses that caused so much trouble for Thea in Florida begin to assert themselves at Yonahlossee as well.
Disclafani does a remarkable job channeling into the complex and sometimes contradictory emotions of a fifteen year old girl (Anton Discalfani is female). If you’ve read any reviews, you know that this novel involves a sexual coming of age story. It also does a fine job of situating its characters in a specific period of US history which involved great upheaval as families once wealthy became impoverished and some women yearned for more than the narrow life of marriage and family.
There are a number of strong female characters in the story. Thea is at the top of the list. For a 15 year old, she has a strong sense of purpose and desire, a fearlessness and recklessness that she embraces. Though she resents and is hurt by the separation from her family, she eventually sees that it’s the best thing that has happened to her. Mrs. Holmes, married to the camp’s headmaster, seems to see all and know all at the school, is the head disciplinarian and fundraiser. She knew Thea’s mother when they were in school together and seems to know the details of Thea’s transgressions. One of Thea’s more interesting classmates, Leona, is aloof and stoic, from a very wealthy family and a superb horsewoman. Leona and Thea share a passion for horses and have a confidence and determination that the other girls lack. Most of them aspire to a good marriage and some are forced for financial reasons to marry young.
The final resolution of the novel, where we learn exactly what happened between Thea, Sam and Georgie and its aftermath, is a little surprising. Some details can be gleaned from Thea throughout her tale, but the big reveals are saved for the end. I found this to be a well constructed novel with engaging characters and a clever plot. Another great read for summer.