Anton DiSclafani's debut novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, is a painstakingly constructed ode to a young girl's sexual awakening — just ladylike enough to be more bodice unbuttoner than bodice ripper. Like Rumer Godden's classic 1958 novel, The Greengage Summer, this is perhaps one of the classier books a young teen would hide under her covers to read with a flashlight. It features a 15-year-old narrator, Theodora "Thea" Atwell, whose family banishes her to a North Carolina equestrian boarding school in 1930. There's been a scandal. The Great Depression is closing in.
Thea describes herself as "a wrong girl if there ever was one." From another girl, this might come across as a plea for sympathy, but this watchful, bold teenager, who begins her stay at Yonahlossee by poking through her new roommates' closets, never seems to seek pity. She begins the novel convinced that whatever she did — and it doesn't take long to figure out it has to do with sex — was a violation of society's rules. "My character was not what it should have been. Nobody had told me that, but I knew." She is both innocent and fallen.
DiSclafani cuts back and forth between two richly imagined time frames and settings. In the past, there is Thea's paradisiacal Florida home with its citrus groves and endless summer. There she rode her pony, Sasi, and hunted for snakes with her slightly older cousin Georgie and her twin brother, Sam, a childlike boy with a gift for calming animals. In the present at Yonahlossee, where the sweet iced tea is addictively "thick and syrupy," and the three stone barns and five riding rings appear as palaces to a horse-obsessed girl, she cautiously adjusts to the camp's complex social hierarchy.
Although all the girls wear the same white uniforms of skirts and blouses with virginal Peter Pan collars, scholarship students mix with the upper-middle-class campers, like Thea, and the very wealthy, who, despite the Depression, arrive with ruby earrings or their own champion horses in tow. Teasing out the details of Thea's tragic secret in flashbacks, DiSclafani introduces a new love interest nearly as inappropriate as the boy at the heart of the original scandal. Her language is formal, almost deliberately stilted — except when it comes to the sex — and her stately pacing as controlled as a horse being led through a dressage competition.
As guilty as Thea feels for her transgressions, she's angry with her parents for sending her away, and while she reads their letters for news of Sam, she refuses to answer them. Instead she loses herself in novels (lots of Edith Wharton and E.M. Forster, natural choices for a girl looking for tantalizing undercurrents of sexuality) — and horses, naturally. Like legions of teenage girls before her, the resentful Thea frequently feels powerless, but never on a horse. Not when she's riding Sasi (" 'Yes, yes, yes,' I murmured, in rhythm to his canter.") or the mare she's assigned to at Yonahlossee: "I had all her power harnessed between my legs and hands, beneath me," Thea says. "I'd never felt such energy, roiling beneath me like a violent wave."
Shaking my head over these images, which fairly pant off the page, I thought, what is it with girls and horses? (I don't recommending Googling this phrase at work.) But as someone who spent many a tween hour poring over the novels of Mary O'Hara (My Friend Flicka), Marguerite Henry (Misty of Chincoteague) and Walter Farley (The Black Stallion), I shouldn't have to ask. And even though there were times when I found The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls ponderous, if I were Thea's age, I would retreat to my bedroom and devour this sexy coming-of-age story like a horse with a box of sugar cubes.
It isn't marketed as a young-adult novel, and the vintage photograph on the jacket, of a young woman holding a cigarette, might scare off some parents, but The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls has all the hallmarks of a story meant to empower young women; this is where its greatest value may lie. I loved the way DiSclafani, through Thea, captures the sudden, shocking loneliness of sex at a young age: "Maybe, I thought, as he pushed himself into me, it was enough, that [he] would try to understand me later, that right now there was a need and when we were done the need would not exist anymore."
While Thea's motivations would doubtless be described by someone of her era as "urges," they are more complex than that. When she was 15, Thea's mother said to Sam, right in front of her: "Thea's a girl. ...She doesn't matter like you do." I, for one, can't blame this budding feminist for refuting that statement with everything she's got, even if it means she finds her power — and her glory — in reducing the most patriarchal figure at Yonahlossee to a man lying in the North Carolina dirt, begging her not to stop.
Mary Pols reviews movies for Time Magazine and Time.com and blogs on the MSN Page-Turner books blog. She is the author of the memoir Accidentally on Purpose: The True Tale of a Happy Single Mother.