Not once did I ever have the privilege or pleasure of going to sleepaway camp. This simple fact, of course, means that I’ve romanticized this quintessential summer experience beyond all reason. Do I picture lazy days in the sun, lounging in the middle of the lake on a float, campfires, a little summer romance, and the best bunk mates and future lifelong friends a girl could have? Why yes, yes I do. Since I’m long past the acceptable age to participate in such blissful activities, I do the next best thing – I read lush, evocative (and often provocative) literature about exclusive summer camps for debutantes. If the genre ‘provocative summer camp literature’ existed, Anton DiSclafani’s debut novel ‘The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls’* would be the poster child for it.
Thea Atwell, age 15, has been banished from her Florida home. What for? We don’t know and finding out is half the fun. But it’s 1930, the country’s in the midst of the Great Depression, and a 15 year old girl has been suddenly and irrevocably removed from the only place she’s ever known – the obvious conclusion: boys. The place of banishment: the beautiful, secluded all girls’ equestrienne camp from which the novel takes its title. Thea is angry and lost, strong-willed and self-contained.
I was not so angry with my situation that I could not discern beauty.
In 1930, she simply does not fit in, but she soon learns the social hierarchy of the camp. The chapters alternate between Thea’s idyllic life in Florida and her new life in North Carolina. Each chapter reveals a little bit more of the event that changed Thea’s life. It quickly becomes clear that my obvious assumption was right – Thea had been involved with a boy, intimately. In her new life, Thea is just as helpless as she was with her family, simply because she is female. She quickly learns that the only power she holds is her sexuality and this realization will have repercussions for the rest of her life.
Because of me, Thea Atwell, a wrong girl if there ever was one.
While this coming of age tale is not perfect, it’s as lush, evocative, and yes, provocative as the storyline sounds. Thea Atwell is a young girl learning what her body is capable of – love, lust, desire, control – at the same time that women are encouraged to suppress such urges. It is no wonder she feels like a ‘wrong girl’. I think this is a sentiment that most teenage girls can relate to at one time or another. While this novel is not written for or marketed to young adults, I would’ve loved it as a teenager. The sexual undertones and innuendos leap of the page (many having to do with horseback riding). However it’s the mysterious, near-southern-Gothic handling of the revelation that keep the pages turning.
One of the novel’s strengths also serves as its primary weakness. Thea’s voice, though astute, observant, and not wholly likable, is slightly beyond what is believable in a precocious 15 year old (this coming from a former precocious, pretentious teenager). However, the prose is beautiful and the sense of place is wonderfully developed.
So many things were like that: you waited and waited and waited, and then it happened, and you were still you. I wasn’t sure yet if this was disappointment or a relief. It seemed to be a little bit of both.
Anton DiSclafani’s debut novel has its share of flaws, but it well worth reading – a good coming of age novel set in a decadent, Southern summer camp is not to be missed. If Thea sounds beyond her years and the initial plotting is a bit slow, this is more than made up for by the author’s sense of place, time, and her clear love of horses. 3.75/5. Perhaps my favorite quote:
I was a girl, I learned, who got what she wanted, but not without sadness, not without cutting a swath of destruction so wide it consumed my family. And almost me. I almost fell into it, with them. I almost lost myself.
But I was too selfish. I wanted, as Mr. Holmes put it, too much. And none of it was a decision, a list written out, a plan articulated. We have no say in who we love. And woe be to all of us, for that.
On a serious note, I find that last quote to be heartbreakingly accurate. Love is one of life’s greatest pleasures, but not when the love is deemed wrong or it is not reciprocated. You cannot choose who you love, but you can choose who to be with – you just have to hope that it will be one and the same.
Not being one to leave things too serious, please tell me at least one of you went to summer camp…? Or, like me, did your parents woefully deprive you of a quintessential summer experience? Aside from ‘The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls’, anyone read any good summer camp literature? Seen any summer camp films? My recent favorite: Moonrise Kingdom. Better yet, any thoughts on the cult classic Sleepaway Camp? You’ll be my hero if you’ve actually watched it!
This novel had a lot of standard supper references, but the one that stuck out in my mind was, at breakfast one morning, the girls ate Raspberry Muffins.
* I received a review copy of this novel in exchange for my honest opinion.
14 thoughts on “The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani”
I was fretting that I would have to wait for this book until my winter book-buying-ban was over… BUT I discovered this week that I had actually pre-ordered it MONTHS ago and it’s on its way to way to me now. Yay for acting on impulse when I read a pre-release review!
Summer camp is not something that’s done in Australia. We do have school camps though and in fact one of my boys is off with his school mates, doing outdoor ed during miserable weather (flash flooding forecast for today!) this week.
I know a lot of people who didn’t care for it and found it boring, but I found it engrossing. It did have its problems (Thea sounded like an impulsive, selfish 25 year old), but the writing is generally excellent.
I don’t know that summer camp is done too often now, but it was definitely a thing when I was younger, sadly I never did experience it. Now I want to do an adult summer camp like this one:
If only. I am taking another vacation (staycation? I’m going to Telluride, Colorado) at the end of the month, but not quite as nice as the one above.
That place looks LOVELY.
I went to girl scout sleep away camp, which amounted to 5 days, 4 nights. It was fun, but still not the experience I imagine when I hear about the “real” kind where you go for weeks on end. This sounds fascinating. My TBR list keeps growing and growing and growing and…
Would you believe I was politely asked to leave girl scouts, apparently I was just not cool enough (though I suspect it had more to do with my family than me).
I so wish I had done something like this when I was younger, it’s the only time there is an opportunity like that. As an adult (particularly in America), it’s really rare to get a job that will give you 8 weeks off. I totally should have been a teacher.
Seriously?! You were asked to leave girl scouts?! That’s the most awful thing I’ve ever heard! Sometimes I think I should have been a teacher, because the time off would rule. Then I remember that it would be REALLY hard and I don’t have the patience for it. It would be really fun to start a sleepaway camp for grown ups. It would be a week long. You’d stay in a cabin. Only you’d get to drink. I’d book that vacay.
So would I, so. would. I….
I’m a pseudo-teacher of sorts, I’m a librarian at a museum and I do children’s programming on occasion – it reminds me of exactly why I’m not a teacher.
I love, love, love Moonrise Kingdom, but then again I’m a huge Wes Anderson fan. This one is definitely going on my TBR list.
Me too! I like Moonrise Kingdom better than this particular book, but both are good. Moonrise Kingdom might win out due to Wes Anderson and Edward Norton.
Great review- I keep reading great things about this book and want to read it- seems I have less time to read now that I write about reading!
Thanks! It seems to be hit or miss, but it you like ‘summer’ literary fiction, this is excellent. The flaws are made up for by the quality of the writing.
And that last bit is incredibly true. Now I’m exposed to so many more books that before, plus the review copies that I get, and add in writing about the book after finishing it – reading has almost taken a back seat (almost being the keyword there).
Sorry, I never was sent away to camp, either. And I don’t know anyone who was. Probably not the thing to do in Kansas. The real risk was being sent all summer to Grandpa’s farm but that wasn’t my situation/opportunity, either. I did go to a week long camp with my 6th grade class. Sadly, I don’t recall much more than being afraid of spiders in the cabins.
I don’t know that I’d want to go to sleepaway camp in Kansas (too hot and dry in the summer). I’m thinking Maine would have been my ideal sleepaway camp destination, but New Hampshire has some lovely spots too.
And the spiders, better you than me – I cannot handle that. I was bitten by a brown recluse when I was younger and the bite went necrotic. Still have the scar and all the emotional trauma that goes with it (like screeching when I see something with 8 legs).