Summer camp is to kids what Vegas is to adults: what happens there (between the canoeing and the s’mores), stays there. Sort of. Campfire-building skills and lifelong friends — those things you take with you. Try-on personas, a penchant for popsicle-stick crafts and first kisses — those things remain in the camp vault.
Summer camp for Thea Atwell, the teenage heroine of Anton DiSclafani’s volatile debut novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, is like that in some ways. The friends, the skills, the dining hall. But, for Thea, camp is also a punishment. She’s sent away following a family tragedy she unwittingly orchestrates. And what she initially believes to be a season at riding camp (“A Summer Equestrian Respite for Young Ladies Since 1876,” according to the book) turns into a full year at an all-girls boarding school in the North Carolina mountains.
It’s here that Thea begins to really know herself as a sister, a daughter, a friend, a horsewoman and a person: “I was fearless,” she says in the novel. “It was a trait that served me well in the ring, and badly in life.”
“There is a ‘real’ Yonahlossee in Blowing Rock,” says DiSclafani. “When it closed, in the 1980s, it was the oldest girls camp in N.C.” The author grew up in northern Florida (like Thea, though the character lives a sheltered and privileged life in a grand country home surrounded almost exclusively by family members). DiSclafani’s grandparents have a cabin in Valle Crucis that she visits every year.
Though parts of the Blowing Rock camp, since turned into a tennis club, remain (DiSclafani says she’s eaten dinner at a restaurant that's housed in the former headmaster's cabin), the camp in Yonahlossee is completely fictionalized. “I didn't want to be tied to any particular model of boarding school, or camp, so I created one,” says the author.
What’s not fictionalized: the Great Depression, which wreaked havoc on the country during the ‘30s, when Yonahlossee is set. Through Thea’s eyes, DiSclafani explores a side of the Depression rarely examined — how the economic collapse affected the upper-middle class. “The experience of the very poor and the very wealthy in the Depression is well-tread territory; I was interested in how the trajectory of one's life changes in subtler ways,” says the author. While the girls at the riding camp are sheltered from many harsh realities, rumors circulate about classmates whose families lose everything. One girl, a star rider, faces giving up not only her place at the school, but also her horse.
“There were some girls sent home, but most of them stayed at Yonahlossee, and their lives changed in ways that were less tragic, but still incredible: marrying early, for money; not continuing on to a ladies college,” says DiSclafani. And, even though the story takes place 80 years ago, the author sees a parallel to today in how the recent economic crisis constrained the lives it didn’t completely unravel.
But even as tragedy swirls at the novel’s periphery (Thea is separated from her twin and lifelong confidant, Sam; her family has to sell their home), life goes on. There are dances and riding competitions and boys; the latter perhaps most important because Yonahlossee is a coming-of-age novel.
That, too (first love, awkward explorations) is complicated by the era. “The women's movement was throttled by the Depression, so there was this taste of what life could have been like, from the more liberal 1920s,” says DiSclafani. “And then the country grew more conservative, as the Depression hit, so it was a really interesting moment to come of age.”
Girls are sent to and then away from the camp for indiscretions with boys. For being “fast.” That kind of mistake spelled social ruination. But in the N.C. mountains, free of her family, Thea discovers, “that my life was full, and rich, and my own.”
Says DiSclafani, “I think, in the end, love is love, whatever decade or moment you're talking about.”
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Anton DiSclafani reading and booksigning for The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls
what: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is the July pick for the Local Matters book club, which will meet in the Malaprop’s cafe on Monday, July 8 at 7 p.m.
when: Friday, June 7 (7 p.m., free. http://www.malaprops.com)