From a historical perspective, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a fascinating look at another side of the Great Depression. While many novels set in this time period focus on those who have already lost everything or did not have much to lose in the first place, Ms. Disclafani spotlights those who have only known a life of privilege and luxury. For these girls, the hardships faced by most of the nation is nothing but a distant trouble, as worthy of their attention as a gnat. To see the national calamity come ever closer to the camp and its residents is to see how pervasive the Depression really was.
Thea’s true nature remains a study of shadows; pinning her down as a naïve rich girl is not as easy as it may seem. On the one hand, Thea Atwell is a victim of circumstances beyond her control. Her severe isolation and lack of exposure to the larger world prevents her from complete culpability in her actions. However, neither is she as innocent as she first appears. There is a studied calculation to her actions which will cause readers to question that very same answerability that seemed so clear-cut in prior chapters. Predator or prey, Thea continues to be a mystery – a mystery that only deepens as a reader is made privy to her secret past and not-so-secret present.
For mood-setting, Ms. Disclafani can get no better. The entire novel contains an undercurrent of disquiet that compounds the mystery behind Thea’s banishment. There are hints found in the luxuries afforded the girls when so many of the nation can barely survive. There are also hints seen in Atwell family gatherings and the permissive sleeping arrangements and relationships between cousins. Outside of these ephemeral suggestions, however, a reader is left with an uneasy feeling and no apparent reason for it. The general apprehension throughout the novel builds tension within the character-driven plot, and does so exceedingly well. Reading the novel is an exercise in stress as a reader tries to pin down the reasons for his discomfort whiling trying to understand Thea’s character and how her past actions landed her among her beloved horses at Yonahlossee.
Adina Verson does a decent job narrating, but it is one situation where the writing is the one enhancing the narrator rather than the reverse scenario. Ms. Verson does master Thea’s complicated nature and simultaneous guile and guilelessness. Yet, it is Ms. Disclafani’s own words which prove to be so effective when listening rather than Ms. Verson’s characterization of Thea or any of the other girls. The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is one novel that works well in both print and audio versions, as the strength of Ms. Disclafani’s writing outshines either format.
In The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, there is a Lolita-type vibe to the entire story that unsettles and intrigues. Thea’s so-called punishment enhances the confusion surrounding her character, as a reader never obtains a clear understanding of her guilt and/or innocence in the situation that led to her enrollment in the camp, just as the true relationships among the cousins remains unclear. Similarly, a reader cannot discern whether the camp was truly a punishment or her savior. All of the ambiguity creates a strong and haunting coming-of-age story that shocks and enthralls readers and that begs to be discussed.