August 26, 2013

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

Last week I finished "The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls," a coming-of-age novel set at an exclusive riding/boarding camp for rich Southern girls in 1930.  I really enjoyed this book; the voice of the narrator, Thea Atwell, is strong and sure and terribly self-possessed for a sheltered fifteen-year-old. 

I was a couple of chapters into the book before it dawned on me why I was enjoying it so much: back when I was a teen/tween, I inhaled books about girls at boarding schools and summer camp.  Going away to school, and particularly summer camp, is something taken for granted if you're at least middle-class on the east coast (or so I learned), but that reality was terribly exotic and foreign to me, a barely middle-class girl from SoCal.

 I also have a huge weakness for books set in the South, especially the wealthy South prior to the 1960s, where manners and etiquette and good breeding were so much a part of the culture. Again, growing up I knew nothing of debutantes and cotillions and family names, but I soaked it all up like I was studying for some future test. (I read Gone With the Wind at least 3 times.)

So when wealthy young Thea is shipped from her isolated home comprised of acres of wild north Florida landscape, and shipped off to the mountains of North Carolina as punishment for some unnamed transgression, I was hooked. 
I liked the plot of the book, but what I liked even more is how DiSclafani chose to make Thea such a fiercely strong and feminist character in that insulated world of wealthy young horsewomen. Yes, she is sexual, and has strong sexual desires and fantasies, which maybe upsets people, but her desires are perfectly normal -- for 15 and 16 year old girls now, and those back in 1930.

Not to give too much away as to why Thea is abruptly sent hundreds of miles away from her beloved home and twin brother, but in our current culture of "slut-shaming" and blaming the victim, I loved how Thea understood and tapped into her own female power to navigate her new surroundings.

Very strong and engaging first novel, and I look forward to more from DiSclafani. 

So, as I got a few chapters into the book and remembered how much I loved "boarding school books," I remembered my favorite one of all.  But I couldn't recall the name.  Thanks to the internet, a few minutes of searching provided the answer:
It was "They'll Never Make A Movie Starring Me," by Alice Bach.  Despite re-reading the book several times, all I can recall now is that the narrator is a well-to-do young woman from NYC, sent to boarding school in New England.  She's obsessed with the young Katherine Hepburn, and tries to live her life by mimicking Kate's wealthy blue blood/dryly witty persona of her early comedies.  What I most remember from the book is that protagonist wants to attend Bryn Mawr, the exclusive women's college that Hepburn actually went to.

Since I had no clue about New England blue bloods or what the heck "Bryn Mawr" was or implied, I lapped up all this fascinating cultural stuff. And since it feels like I also spent huge chunks of my adolescence trying on personas and mimicking famous people or characters, it's no wonder I responded to this book so much. 

And I'm happy that "The Yonahlossee..." novel brought it all back to me.  


  1. I grew up about a half hour away from Bryn Mawr (its a ritzy town on the Main Line outside Philly). Bryn Mawr College is an all girls liberal arts college (one of the Seven Sisters) that does things like celebrate May Day in white dresses dancing around a may pole (hehe).

    1. Yes, thanks to Dell paperbacks such as this one, I learned about Bryn Mawr & its reputation.

      On the other hand, I've never quite puzzled out what "the Main Line" is -- a neighborhood, a region, a series of train stations?


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