Bittersweet is the word I’d use to describe The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, if I only had one. It’s a coming-of-age boarding school book that’s mysterious, sexual, and lovely. It’s about the bonds that grow out of isolation and about the ones that are broken in the process. It’s a beautifully written story of a girl who learns to be brave in ways that many adults never seem to.
Thea is a rich girl from a close, picture-perfect family living in Florida in the 1930s. She’s a good girl, not too spoiled and not too spirited. She loves her family, including her twin brother, Sam, and her family loves her. But then she does something — and I won’t tell you what, because even the novel takes about half the book to spill the beans — that becomes a family secret. A secret so big that she’s sent away to a camp/boarding school, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls.
At the camp, she’s surrounded by the children of wealth at the time when the wealth of the country is crumbling. The Depression doesn’t touch this place at first, but then, one by one, the girls start to disappear, back to their destitute families. Thea realizes wealth can’t last forever as she realizes that her picture perfect life won’t, either. The chasm between her and her family is too big. She realizes she’ll always love them, but, if she’s going to survive, her life has to be very different.
The novel is about Thea’s shift from paying penance for what happened by idolizing her family and missing them, to finally realizing that she’s not completely to blame. She takes responsibility for what she did, but she stops shaming herself. It’s a tricky balance to find in literature, and in life. She’s sent to school to learn her lesson, and she does. But she also realizes that her parents and brother are weaker than she’d ever imagined, which they prove by completely blaming her for something that wasn’t entirely her doing. She learns that showing her own strength isn’t shameful, even when it serves as a counterpoint to reveal her family’s faults.
Thea goes into the world and grows while her brother stays frozen in time at home. Losing the bond with her twin is terribly painful, and symbolic of how leaving the childlike part of ourselves is necessary, but difficult, as we transition into adulthood. She finds solace and a future in horses, and, beyond the gorgeous description of riding and keeping a horse that’s woven throughout the book, they also stand for Thea’s power, her dedication to digging in her spurs and taking control of life, and, of course, her ability to escape.
As Thea’s world crumbles, so does the world around her. But, in the midst of personal and economic tragedy, she more than survives. She thrives, when others in her position, her classmates and her family, waste away, emotionally and sometimes literally. The novel is really about how she learns to love them without hating herself, how she learns that she must leave them in order to avoid becoming just like them. It’s also a story of friendship with girls at the boarding school, of the ways we learn to mask ourselves so we won’t get hurt, a love affair with sport and horses, and a reminder to experience beauty, even when circumstances beg us to see only the worst.