Book review - The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

Horses are increasingly being used to help young offenders, troubled adults and difficult children. In Anton DiSclafani’s debut novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, fifteen-year-old Thea is sent to an elite summer camp, come boarding school, ostensibly as a punishment for her sexually precocious behaviour with a cousin that ends in tragedy.

It’s 1930. At the riding camp, improving one’s equestrian skills is considered just as important as the obligatory classes in etiquette and deportment – the girls’ prowess with horses is put to the test during the annual Spring Show. One senses that Thea’s mother, herself an accomplished horsewoman, believes the camp may help to calm and focus her daughter as well as saving her reputation. The headmistress Mrs Holmes who, Thea learns, is a friend of her mother tells her “if you notice anything unusual, anything… bodily, please come and see me at once.”

DiSclafani’s epic tale is a lot more complex than just one girl’s sexual rite of passage. Thea’s family are from Florida and the camp is in the remote Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Many wealthy Americans are beginning to feel the bitter sting of the Depression. Some of the girls are forced to leave the school when their families lose their fortunes. And yet subtle snobberies, mainly based on wealth, persist. Thea realises that her background does not match up to those of her peers – her father is a doctor while her mother inherited her family’s fortune in oranges. It is Thea’s horsemanship that sets her apart and gains her the respect of the other girls.

The occasional dances with boys from a neighbouring school are always met with feverish excitement. Despite Mrs Holmes watchful eye, love blossoms in the camp. However, Thea finds herself set apart from the girls once more when she is hopelessly drawn to the handsome, young headmaster Henry Holmes.

I am always wary of the inevitable clich├ęs in literature about pony-mad girls who are supposedly sublimating their sexual desire every time they approach a horse. Although DiSclafani connects Thea’s fearlessness around horses with her sexual boldness, thankfully she is more interested in exploring Thea’s journey into self-awareness.

Thea is an odd mix – headstrong, open, but also cold, calculating and immoral. At first, she acts on her desires without much thought for the consequences. But her attempt to control and dominate others is, in part, a response to her feelings of powerlessness and the sexism of the time. Her mother tells Sam, Thea’s beloved twin brother, “she doesn’t matter like you do”. Although Sam is complicit in their cousin’s ruin, it is Thea who is sent away. Horses do not save Thea so much as they help her to better understand herself, the contradictions of her family and the conflicts of youth.

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