Friday, June 28, 2013

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a new kind of classic

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton Disclafani (Penguin)

A pleasure of  The Yonahlosee Riding Camp for Girls is the incredibly astute and almost painfully ironic perceptions of the fifteen-year-old narrator, Thea Altwell. She's entering exile, at the beginning of the novel, as her father drives her from the moist wilds of Florida to the dry mountains of North Carolina. Thea mourns her home and dreads the unknown Camp. Emotionally, she's a mess, filled with guilt and shame. All she knows is her childhood with her happy family in their beautiful home is gone and it’s her fault. She's being punished, her mother's angry and disappointed that Thea's not a "right" girl. She doesn’t believe her father will leave her, until he does. Then she's profoundly alone in a cabin with strange girls.

Thea has never before left her insular world in rural Florida. She and her beloved twin brother, Sam, were even tutored at home by their father. While both fear nothing in the natural world, Sam is reticent about people and Thea finds herself cautious. Yonahlossee is alien terrain. She studies the habits, values, and attitudes of the southern society girls, who make up the camp. Thea also assesses the counselors, including the handsome Headmaster and his wife, who knows Thea's mother and more about Thea than she likes. Self-conscious, Thea keeps to herself and finds solace in riding, though she mourns her pony at home. 

Expecting to leave at camp's end, Thea is furious, when she learns her father paid for the school year. She's  also contemptuous about Yonahlossee's teaching them to be "ladies" over offering math and science. Desperately missing her family with no word from her twin, Thea becomes very ill. Unexpectedly, Sissie, a popular girl, visits her in the infirmary. This is surprised to learn she considers herself a friend. Through Sissie's regard, Thea's sense of self-worth rises. Sissie likes Thea's wit and that as a Floridian, she doesn't fit the southern status norms.  

Thea realizes that she likes Yonahlossee, as her peers come to respect her for being smart in her studies and skilled at riding. One of the top three riders, she gets assigned a specific horse. Her mare is highly intelligent and nervous, qualities Thea grows to appreciate for how they can be used as assets in  performance. And as she discovers her horse, she also learns about her own qualities that can be positive or negative.

Interwoven with the story of Thea adapting to Yonahlosee, is the one about the tragedy she struggles to understand. The other girls heard she had “trouble with a boy.” They can't guess at the intensity of her sexual initiation through her cousin and she avoids talk. But they note her odd disinterest in a dance and a handsome boy. For Thea passion means loss--her brother's silence and her cousin, who may be hurt. But when Sissie wants her to cover for her meeting a boy, Thea agrees. She knows discovery means expulsion. If she can help Sissie avoid shame, all the better. 

Though a wounded soul, Thea comes to like being "one of the girls," enjoying the crisp uniforms and quaint traditions. But she is also aware that the Depression has entered Yonahlossee's bubble. Girls once rich disappear. Thea’s father is a doctor and they have “citrus” money but her cousin's family is impoverished, as are the Appalachian servant girls. Thea blames her mother for having kept her so sheltered from reality.. 

When the Headmaster’s wife goes on a fundraising trip and he’s left with his three young daughters,Thea offers to teach them to ride. She tells herself she wants to be close to a family but knows she really wants to be close to the Headmaster. The guy is married with little kids but an impassioned Thea elevates her crush to a seductive kiss. I found this hard to believe, considering her integrity. How did her shame at letting her passions get the best of her in the past, inspire her to do it again?  I also didn't believe this Headmaster would allow himself to be seduced but then that's me. 

Thea Altwalt’s erotic drive makes her a kind of reverse Scarlett O’Hara, who allowed her “head to rule her heart.” Considering Thea's era, when a girl could be “ruined” at 15, perhaps she felt the Headmaster was a safe grown-up? Maybe she wanted to rebel against  the negative judgments of her family at her doing what felt natural?  She does evolve enough to understand what's positive about her passion.

Despite these questions, I was glad her self-torture is relieved by the Headmaster, who says whatever happened to land her at the Camp was a “a chain of events,” not her evil nature. In this southern Gothic, Faulknerian theme, you want Thea to triumph over the whole mess laid on her. Yet the overheated romance didn't quite mesh for me with the very fine narrative of a girl’s coming of age. Kind of like National Velvet becomes Lolita, though this might just be me. A positive comparison is with Bonjour Triestess, the French classic of an older man helping a young girl gain a new sense of herself as a woman. 

The author does pull this off. But what hooked me was wanting to find out what this brave, smart, observant girl with her own mind had done that was so awful. Was it really about her having sex? You discover, as she does, that it’s less about her passions, the "ferocity" of her nature, then the way society censors free-thinking women. Thea and her  twin had lived like Adam and Eve in a Florida Eden before the Snake. Sam cannot forgive her his intense feelings of separation. Yet in the horrific aftermath, the parents kept him, not Thea.  

She's blamed for her desiring self, essential for competitive riding, yet not in her social world. Thea takes what she wants, whether its to secretly try the jewelry of a cabin mate or, at the most forbidden, the handsome Headmaster. Being "willful" is bad for girls but Thea doesn't actually care. By the end of The Yonnalaseee Riding Camp, she's grown into herself. What she wants is at her risk and she understands consequences. Thea also knows she can bear them better than Sissie. When she's finally caught, Thea finds a way to substitute herself. It's also a way home to see her brother. Society's verdicts mean little, when she has learned to be her own conscience. 

TheYonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a new kind of classic. Thea's coming of age fits our era with an eye for how we got here. It avoids nostalgia by looking at what's eternal in a girl's "coming of Age" story. The Beast that Beauty "tames" is actually her own animal nature. And in the classic The Little Mermaid, she is the one who pulls her prince out of the water--though she suffers for that. Yonahlossee is a National Velvet for our time, where the subtext of horses is more obviously sex. .