Juggling past, present and future while telling a story through the eyes of a single narrator is no easy task. Anton DiSclafani manages with exceptional skill in her first novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls. Thea Atwell’s family has banished her to a girls’ camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Their reasons are mysterious, and initially Thea admits nothing either to her readers or to the other girls. Her story unfolds gradually, as she weaves events that happened at her home in Florida into what is occurring at camp. At the same time, she acknowledges she is narrating retrospectively. So we have an older woman looking back at her youth, a braiding of a teen-ager’s sensibility and a teen-ager’s sense of self entwined with the maturity of an adult.
Such multi-layers are difficult for an author to control, especially when keeping the proper perspective as the point of view shifts from one Thea to another. DiSclafani does so with tact and grace. Nothing jarred, as I read Thea contemplating her immediate past, living her current life at the riding camp, and only occasionally revealing that she actually exists somewhere in the future, far removed from her teen-age traumas. The various tones were pitch perfect, and the action both coherent and believable. Of course history repeats itself while Thea is growing up, but DiSclafani is never heavy-handed with the parallels she constructs between one year and the next.
Not long ago I began reading a similar novel for ‘Bookin’ with Sunny’—again, a teen-age girl in some sort of trouble who has been banished for an unnamed indiscretion. I never finished that ”never-to-be-named on this blog book ” because I was so irritated after the first fifty pages. I don’t know what dastardly deed the perpetrator had committed, and I definitely don’t care. Again, the author was creating a rather interesting character and had a keen control over the teen-aged angst, but she did so by setting forth an ongoing string of curses. With half a dozen f-words per page, I soon lost interest. DiSclafani doesn’t make that mistake. Rather, she makes Thea sound natural, thoughtful, literate, but not too sophisticated at all.
This is not to say that DiSclafani couldn’t have used a little more editing. If I had been reviewing the manuscript, I would have recommended a revision of the relationship between Thea and the headmaster of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls. I thought that relationship could have been expressed in more subtle ways without losing the import or the impact on Thea’s emotional growth. As successful as DiSclafani is with her handling of point of view, she is less effective when she lets her graphic imagination get in the way of her psychological intuition. If that sounds like reviewer gibberish, please forgive me. I just don’t want to give away too much of the plot!
That said, I still enjoyed reading this novel. Thea’s relationship with her twin brother, who remains with the family and who only writes once, is rendered with power and finesse. Her relationship with her parents is conveyed with equal subtlety, as is the background of the Great Depression. And all this through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old. The reader only knows the other characters and events as Thea sees them, only has her interpretation of her actions and the actions of others. But in the hands of DiSclafani, this presentation works very, very well. – Ann Ronald