The beginning of Anton DiSclafani’s debut novel sees Thea Atwell, fifteen-year-old Floridian, arrive at the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls in North Carolina, towards the end of the 1920s. Run by a Mr and Mrs Holmes, this is “a place for young women to learn how to become ladies”. It is certainly a dramatic change of environment and lifestyle for Thea – not least when she discovers that, rather than the summer of riding she had anticipated, her parents have actually sent her to Yonahlossee for a whole year. Thea offers to teach the Holmes children how to ride, not just as a good turn, but also because she wants to get close to Mr Holmes. The chronicle of Thea’s time at Yonahlossee runs in parallel with that of the tragic event at home which led to her being sent to the camp.
DiSclafani evokes the social maze of life at Yonahlosee well. Particularly effective is her use of riding as a metaphor for Thea’s passage through the year: when she leaves her pony behind in Florida, she is in a sense leaving behind her childhood; friendships at Yonahlossee are cemented, and social progress marked, through horse-riding.
The novel’s handling of Thea’s key relationships seems less sure-footed, however. Her attraction to Mr Holmes – and especially his reciprocation of it – don’t seem to me to be established well enough to earn their eventual pay-off. (I have similar reservations about the Florida-set storyline, though to a lesser extent. Thea’s friendships at Yonahlossee are nicely done, but the emotions that move the novel forward are not quite as powerful as they might be.