Friday, July 12, 2013

DiSclafani Rides With Girls At Camp

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls by Anton DiSclafani
It is the easiest thing in the world to dismiss The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls by Anton DiSclafani as a quiet story about fast girls in the 30s. As a careless summation, that is what the book is about.

But then again, there are other things lurking beneath such safe or easy descriptions. Thea Atwell, after all, comes as close to being a passive aggressive anti-protagonist as any character has hoped to be since Gene Forrester pushed his best friend out of a tree.

Only she never makes us feel uneasy over the brute force of her actions. She was born to make us feel uncomfortable because we realize how unliberated we still want young women to be. We want them to be well-mannered, innocent and proper. If they are not, then let them be victims of men and circumstance.

Few protagonists will haunt you. This one will.

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls is everything it is because of precisely the reason critics temper their praise for the lovely and talented but equally uncertain and self-conscious Thea Atwell. It stands to reason that many will be miffed. Atwell earns sympathy early as she is torn away from home.

The book opens with her father doing the unthinkable. He is exiling his daughter to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls, presumably for something she did wrong. It's her punishment to be uprooted from an otherwise sheltered existence in Florida where her father's medical practice and her mother's inherited orange groves have afforded her a quiet and privileged life with her twin brother.

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls by Anton DiSclafani
The punishment, as readers might assume from Atwell's point of view, doesn't fit the crime. She is being taken from the freedom and safety of an estate and cast into a regimented mountain camp filled with wealthy and affluent girls, most of whom were sent there to learn etiquette and social grace.

The only redeeming quality of the school from her point of view is that it includes riding lessons. Atewell is an especially good rider, not because she is the most skilled but because she is fearless. And it is this fearlessness in this coming of age story that depicts the dark side of adolescence that risks betraying everyone close to her — even the reader.

An era brought to life with both vivid and direct writing.

Anton DiSclafani easily proves her craft as a writer, effortlessly capturing the era and surroundings to make the novel both beautiful and compelling. If there are any risks in losing readers, it will likely be that the passive aggressive plot line proves too tiring, the sexuality too direct and passionless, or the protagonist too cruel, selfish, and unstable.

All of these assessments are grounded in some accuracy, but where the split between one reader and another occurs is that some will recognize all those things are important. Atwell is not Moraine in Out Of The Easy. You do not have to like her. She doesn't need you to like her. She rightly fits the times.

While the story is set in the midst of the Great Depression, DiSclafani and her young protagonist seem all too aware that the roaring 20s gave women a taste of independence. And this story makes the case that they needed more of it, as the virtues of men and old family wealth was to fickle to protect them.

DiSclafaniThroughout the story, it seems clear enough that society wants the young women of the Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls to rise to a specific standard, but some of them are becoming chiefly aware that those who expect this standard haven't necessarily risen to it. As fortunes are lost and families suddenly downcast, more girls than Atwell are learning that the horse show isn't confined to a course.

DiSclafani has a knack for writing. She rode horses and competed nationally. She also studied at Emory University and earned an MFA from Washington University, where she currently teaches creative writing. She lives in St. Louis.

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls Rides 7.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

For much the same reason I have yet to add A Separate Peace by John Knowles to the bookshelf, it's difficult to elevate The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls. There is an importance to the work (though not as strikingly so as that of Knowles) but both are nearly lost on likability. It's a must read, but for a different reason than most novels.

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls: A Novel by Anton DiSclafani is available from Amazon. You can also order the novel from Barnes & Noble or download it for iBooks. The audiobook, narrated by Adina Verson, is perfectly balanced, making Atwell a girl you love and loathe at the same time. For more about DiSclafani, visit her Facebook page.
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