It may seem improbable these days, but for 15-year-old Thea Atwell, Florida is a kind of paradise: "My mother's family was New Florida, as those families were called, those that went there after the War Between the States when Georgia was no longer a tenable place to live. … My father's family was Old Florida, of Spanish descent."
Thea's expulsion from that paradise kicks into motion the plot of Anton DiSclafani's assured debut novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls. DiSclafani grew up in northern Florida herself, and she sets part of Thea's story not far away, near the hamlet of Emathla, north of Orlando.
But Thea's story takes place in a very different time, beginning in 1930. The Great Depression is casting its dire shadow, but the Atwell family still lives in splendid isolation on a thousand acres of land. Thea's father is a doctor, dedicated to caring for the poor; her mother is that familiar Southern type, a difficult beauty. The fourth member of the family is Thea's beloved twin brother, Sam, a wild child who prefers snakes and squirrels to people. Almost the only other people in their world are an aunt, uncle and cousin — cousin Georgie, who has a mysterious role in Thea's abrupt removal one summer to the camp of the title.
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is almost as isolated as the Atwell place, but much more populous. Tucked onto a North Carolina mountaintop, it's actually a school, although it takes in summer campers. Its student body is made up mostly of the daughters of wealthy families, who send their girls there for a genteel ladies' version of education (and to keep them, in the meantime, out of reach of boys).
Thea, who has pretty much grown up on horseback, been homeschooled by her father and had only Sam for company, has no idea how to fit into the elaborate, arcane hierarchy of Southern debs. These are girls who wear diamond-studded barrettes and are so coddled by servants even their riding clothes are all white -— it never occurs to them to worry about getting the mud out of white jodhpurs.
Besides figuring out, essentially, how to be a girl, Thea is struggling with the heartbreak of being cast out by her family, although her first-person narration (told when she is a much older woman) keeps us in the dark about the reason for it for much of the book. Not only do they send her to Yonahlossee, they rarely write — and Sam never does. And she is achingly homesick for her horse and the family house.
DiSclafani's control of tone in the novel is remarkable, especially for a first book. The story has a kind of underwater dreaminess reminiscent of how slowly time can move when we are young, shot through with insinuating, evasive currents of mystery and dread.
And Thea is both an original and a very believable character. She's naive in ways no 21st century 15-year-old would be, yet sometimes startlingly sharp in her perceptions and wise in her judgments. Not always, though — one element of Thea's believability is her sexuality, and her recognition that her body and her desires are a tremendous source of power, and of peril. In 1930, nice girls weren't even supposed to think of such things. But, as Thea says, "I'm not a right girl."
Her relationships with the other denizens of the camp are skillfully and sometimes surprisingly drawn, as is the importance to Thea of horses and riding, a major source of her self-confidence and physicality.
Thea will finally reveal her secrets, and she'll find that, as Thomas Wolfe wrote, you can't go home again. But she will find her own way. "I was a young woman when young women were powerless," she says at one point. Yet when she recalls another character saying to her, in a circumstance in which another girl might believe it, "Woe be to you, Thea," she thinks, "no … my life was full, and rich, and my own."