Plight of fast, fearless girl hinges on Blowing Rock
by Rob Neufeld
So, here I am reading a 400-page novel about girls at a horseback riding school in Blowing Rock. Okay, I think, the horse-riding details are fascinating, and I remember once I was on WCQS and a girl called in for horse book recommendations; and now I can say I have something.
However, as it turns out, Anton Disclafani’s debut novel, “The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls,” is not for kids. Though it is about a 15-year-old—and her classmates, elders, twin brother, family, and horses—the narrator is the grown woman she becomes, and sex is unabashedly one of her issues, we discover.
What can happen to a girl who finds she gets turned on quickly and who is both fearless and overprotected by her well-off parents in the year 1930?
Disclafani creates a memorable portrait of a young lady. The author presents her book at Malaprop’s Bookstore, 7 p.m., Friday.
She went wrong
“I was fifteen years old when my parents sent me away to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls,” Thea Atwell relates at the novel’s start. “My father drove me from Florida to North Carolina: my parents did not trust me enough to let me ride the train alone.”
It is a novelist’s trick, revealing the main triggering event slowly in flashbacks, making suspense out of something that has already happened.
If we were able to read the girl’s mind while she’s at the school, we’d see a different order of revelation. Her family trauma would be in her thoughts all along. But it is the mature Thea who’s doing the telling, and she can play with us, mirroring Thea’s secretiveness at Yonahlossee.
Meanwhile, we get to know two worlds: that of the privileged girls; and that of the Atwell family, sequestered on their country estate, as Thea’s mother wishes, in a way that seems incestuous.
When Thea arrives at the school (it’s only a camp for summer residents, which Thea thinks she is) and meets the headmaster, she reflects, “I couldn’t ever remember meeting a man whom I was not related to, though surely I must have.”
Later, after a communal bath, when a classmate, Sissy, dabs her neck with a towel, Thea thinks, “This was the first time in weeks someone had touched me and not been angry, and I was surprised at how vulnerable and loved it made me feel.”
Left alone in the cabin just before that, Thea had snooped in other girls’ desks, and examined Sissy’s personal possessions.
Thea has a lot to learn, and Yonahlossee is an odd place to do it. There are rivalries, alliances, half-formed identities—and equestrian competition.
As a rider with advanced skill, Thea does not have to share a horse, and bonds with Naari, a flea-bitten gray mare. “Flea-bitten” means freckled.
Thea evaluates Naari. “She was too smart, I could already tell that by the way she tested me, twisting her barrel so she could carry her weight unevenly, tugging on the left side to see if I would notice. I did notice, I corrected her sharply, tugged back on the left rein, squeezed my calves against her sides so she’d speed up and straighten out.
“She was intelligent but fearful, two traits that always seemed to accompany each other in horses.”
The horse knowledge in “Yonahlossee” not only comes out in many scenes—in training, racing, jumping, and grooming—but also in the non-horse parts of the novel, as any activity in which one is intensely involved becomes a vocabulary for the rest of life.
For instance, there’s the theme of wildness.
When Thea gets permission to teach the headmaster and mistress’s daughters how to ride, she thinks, “I wanted to be around children around horses; I wanted to see the Holmes girls learn to love a beast.”
She’d learned various lessons about beasts in her life. Her brother, Sam, had nursed orphaned infant squirrels, and had warned her that touching the animals would make them unfit for the wild into which he planned to introduce them.
Sam was the child who got to stay at home, and the child whom their parents really wanted, Thea thinks. erHHer
Her mother had not known she’d carried twins, and at birth, Thea had come first, and then the boy.
Disclafani plays this theme pretty heavily. It resonates when Thea considers the curse and the blessing of her separation from her brother. But Sam’s squirrely development seems like a lack of development. Supporting actors often have a tough time in stories. How much space do you give them?
There are a lot of supporting actors in “Yonahlossee,” who rise to provide an education in human nature and fate. A few of the camp girls’ families are devastated by the Depression, as are Thea’s uncle and aunt; and they react in different ways.
Most characters are good-natured; yet some have damaging flaws, which make them sad, noble, and threatening.
The world around Thea provides the book’s realism, but she is no “Sister Carrie,” subject to the kind of fate that a realist such as Theodore Dreiser devised for his wayward girl in 1900. Disclafani has created an enduring heroine; and found a voice that speaks to us truly.
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton Disclafani (Riverhead Books hardcover, June 4, 2013, 396 pages, $27.95). See author website.
Anton Disclafani presents her novel at 7 p.m., Fri. at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 55 Haywood St., Asheville. Call 254-6734.
Anton DiSclafani (c) Nina Subin.