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.