"I was fearless," remarks 16-year-old Thea Atwell, after competing in an equestrian competition near the end of THE YONAHLOSSEE RIDING CAMP FOR GIRLS. "It was a trait that served me well in the ring, and badly in life." And it's true; Thea's unflinching attitude, which is what makes her such an accomplished horsewoman, is also what provides much of her story's crises and tensions.
"...an accomplished and assured first novel.... [T]his intriguing debut is more than worth reading; it's worth setting aside time for, because once you start it, you won't want to put it down."
Thea finds herself at the Yonahlossee Riding Camp, an isolated establishment in rural mountainous North Carolina, after getting herself in trouble with a boy back at her home in Florida. At the novel's opening, that's all the reader knows about the situation, but as the story progresses, Thea --- through flashbacks --- narrates exactly what happened to impel her parents to send her away. Thea's life in Florida --- an isolated life, surrounded only by close family members, with essentially no interaction with the outside world --- was intended to be idyllic, but turned claustrophobic as Thea and her twin brother Sam moved from childhood into adolescence. Buoyed by their family's citrus fortune, the Atwells are largely shielded from disaster even as the Great Depression begins to unfold around them, but soon their family problems and the nation's financial ones become intertwined.
And so Thea travels, reluctantly at first, to Yonahlossee, where, her mother hopes, she might finally have some interaction with other girls, and, in Thea's words, learn how to become a "right girl." There, in fact, Thea does gain her first real friends, see models on how to interact appropriately with members of the opposite sex, and continue to excel at horse riding. But her innate desires and complete lack of fear and shame also lead her to continue to make the kind of choices that landed her at Yonahlossee in the first place. In this case, Thea's burgeoning relationship might seem skewed or wrong to the rest of the world, but may be exactly what she needs to make sense of her situation and to begin to understand her role within her family.
THE YONAHLOSSEE RIDING CAMP FOR GIRLS is an accomplished and assured first novel. Thea's story skillfully melds the somewhat Gothic atmosphere of her Florida past with a more conventional (but hardly ordinary) boarding school setting at the camp. The two strands of the narrative develop in parallel, resulting in extremely effective and suspenseful storytelling. That's not to say that the book is not without its weaknesses; some of the supporting characters at Yonahlossee, for example, begin to be developed but then disappear from the author's attention (if not the reader's curiosity), and Thea's twin remains something of a cipher even by the novel's close.
Still, this intriguing debut is more than worth reading; it's worth setting aside time for, because once you start it, you won't want to put it down.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on June 21, 2013