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'Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls' a coming-of-age tale

| Saturday, July 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The year is 1930, and the Great Depression is settling in. Thea Atwell, 15, has been sent away from her Florida home, her parents, her twin brother, her pony and everything else she's ever known, because of an unnamed scandal.

Her destination is the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls. It's a finishing school for the daughters of wealthy Southerners, girls whose given names, such as “Gates,” often began as family surnames. In the mountains of North Carolina, where you can ride even when the sun is high, the girls learn literature, French and horsemanship, but not math or science.

Thea's family lives on a 1,000-acre property covered with citrus groves that provide most of their wealth, and their social life consists of visits to or from her uncle's family in Gainesville. Her father is a doctor who schools his children in the mornings; her mother is a beauty who dotes on her house. Most of Thea's time is spent with her budding-naturalist twin, Sam, or in the barn tending Sasi, her pony.

The twins' cousin Georgie, two years older, makes a third in their tight circle. Thea has never known another girl her age. That's about to change.

At Yonahlossee, she finds a friend in the popular Sissy and a rival in the patrician Leona. (“It was so hard to remember whom to be friendly to, whom to coolly ignore.”) Her horsemanship is her greatest strength and earns her the attention of others, including the handsome young headmaster, Mr. Holmes.

As the story unwinds, the scandal unfurls; it involved a boy, and it ended in violence. Thea made poor choices then, and at Yonahlossee, she makes more of them.

Author Anton DiSclafani, who clearly knows her way around an equine, spins a highly readable narrative, an unconventional coming-of-age story. She writes well, sometimes arrestingly:

“This was the first time I had seen Sissy nervous. And it was the closest I had ever been to a group of boys. I knew what they expected of us. I also knew what we were supposed to expect from them, which was very different — to be led in handfuls of dances, twirled around the room underneath the watchful eyes of adults. We wanted a certain handsome boy to take a fancy to us, to become half of a pair for a night. And then, maybe most of all, we wanted them to leave, so we could pine away.”

DiSclafani displays a good feel for time, place and mores, although she falls into anachronism when the family decorates for Christmas the day after Thanksgiving. In the '30s, trees and trimmings still went up on Christmas Eve.

Most of the characters are little more than sketches. Thea is clearly delineated, but she's not particularly sympathetic: When she does the right thing, it's often for the wrong reason. Some scenes are sexually explicit, and one could see Thea going on to cut a seductive swath through the country club.

In her first novel, DiSclafani demonstrates manifold gifts that should develop more fully as she refines her craft. Despite a slow beginning, “Yonahlossee” won me at the start. Thea's selfish recklessness lost me by the end.

Sarah Bryan Miller is a staff writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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