Here’s the plot in brief:
It’s 1930; America is in the midst of the Great Depression, families are losing money, homes, and their lives. In the midst of the country’s turmoil sits 15-year-old Thea Atwell, the only daughter of a Florida doctor and his beautiful wife. Thea’s family is wealthy thanks to her mother’s citrus groves, and has led a sheltered, unstructured life, roaming her family’s fields on the back of her pony Sasi with her twin brother Sam at her side. When we meet Thea she is in the midst of familial banishment, shunted out to the mountains of North Carolina, so far and so drastically different than Florida, to The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, an elite boarding school for the daughters of the upper echelons. It is here, that Thea, banished from her family due to mysterious circumstances, must fit into the complicated social order that is an all-girls school, while dealing with her own issues of guilt, resentment, and abandonment toward her family.
I’ll start by saying that I was immediately immersed in this book. Told from an adult Thea’s perspective as she looks back at her life, is it easy to empathize with her teenage self; separated from her idyllic home and thrust into the competitive environment of other teen girls, mourning the lost connection with her twin with whom she has been inseparable, and suffering the shunning from her mother. As the story progresses and the reader learns more about Thea’s life and the probable reasons of her banishment that involve the only other teen she had contact with—her cousin George, the sympathy remains, along with a twinge of contempt for the naivety of her mother, and the willful blindness she displayed to the goings on. Author Anton DiSclafani know just how to pull the heart strings, with the right amount of angst and resentment and that cleverness perfectly sucks the reader into the story and firmly implants Thea as a solid, yet tragic hero. The brilliance of this writer is truly displayed in how she slowly and subtlety adds more to Thea’s character and backstory, throwing in little tastes of Thea’s less than perfect traits, stacking them up slowly, so that when the reasons behind the banishment are learned, the reader is so enmeshed in the world through seen through Thea’s eyes, that it becomes nearly impossible to condemn her actions. I say brilliance because the actions of Thea are really reprehensible when removed from the context of the narrative (actually, in my mind they are reprehensible period), and when the shameful reason behind her exile comes to the forefront the reader is still on her side. It’s like being caught up in the gaze of a hypnotist, difficult to breakaway, and in the case of Thea, even harder to condemn.
Having finished, and been given time to digest the plot and motives of its main character, I have come to a far different conclusion; Thea is not a victim—she made her choices willfully and defiantly, but she can be sympathized with to some extent as being a product of her time. Instead of being villains, the Atwell parents bring on their own destruction, both because of the era and the hardships of the Depression, but also because in separating their family from the world at large, they in a sense engineer their own demise. Yet, in the end, when looking back at all that Thea has wrought by her actions, it is clear how much of a path of destruction she left behind her. She is a product of the time—a girl, naïve in her approach to worldly things like sex, politics, money, and society in general, yet because of her isolated upbringing both she and her twin Sam were unable to blossom into fully formed moral human beings capable of becoming healthy members of the world. I’m philosophizing here, but Thea is an almost sociopathic blend of naivety and selfishness, it is her actions that set the ball rolling in a downward spiral, she needs to be punished, and yet in reality it is not Thea who is ultimately punished, it is the family that turned her away, incapable of moving on. Thea is hero and villain, her family the tragic remnants of a battle they didn’t even know had started, and it is they, not Thea who suffer the price. Thea is the champion in this narrative, winning the reader to her side, but upon further contemplation, she is a harbinger of destruction, both contemptible in her actions, but oddly amazing in her resilience, something her parents lack.
I’m torn. This book was phenomenally good. I really felt for Thea, I hoped her parents suffered for their abandonment, for choosing Sam over her. Ultimately, their eventual suffering, even though it stemmed from their own blindness and bad judgment, was so shattering that I can’t help but be frustrated. You love a character, skim over her sins, but when everything else is destroyed by her choices how can you enjoy the aftermath? I was enthralled by the first three quarters of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, and irritated by the last quarter because of Thea’s blasé attitude and seeming lack of awareness that she was the catalyst of all the misery. Maybe these feelings speak to the talent of the author and her compelling narrative. Perhaps they are a more accurate depiction of what happens when a child is denied socialization and accountability. Maybe if Thea’s parents dealt with the issue instead of just removing the elephant in the room, the outcome would have been different. Life is a series of what ifs; postulating on the parents mistakes, the role of society in that era, and Thea’s choices isn’t going to give me anything, but a headache, and it is this that speaks to Anton DiSclafani’s talent as a storyteller, she is making me think, there might even be a catharsis somewhere in there. A good storyteller charms you with the lore, a great one makes you deconstruct it and feel emotion, positive and negative, question it, revel in it. I might be ethically frustrated by the outcomes of this novel, but while reading it I was invested, and it is that investment, created by the mesmeric narrative, which makes it a book worth reading and discussing.