Wednesday, July 31, 2013

"The Rough and Often Beautiful Mess"

In the heat of mid summer and through the days of the full moon, I have been absorbed in two events: one being the birth of the future King and the other reading, The Yonahlosse Riding Camp for Girls. Anton Disclafoni's first novel is a breathtaking story. Set amid orange groves in Florida and then at an old riding camp in the hills of North Carolina, this book does what we hope for in our summer reading; it transports us to another time and a well imagined place.

Having been a veteran of both boarding school and summer camp, I know the cloistered worlds where young woman were sent to build friendships, to gain skills, and hopefully, to stay out of trouble. As my camp had horses and a riding ring, I am very familiar with the obsessions that accompany equestrian pursuits. Disclafani, herself a skilled horsewoman who competed nationally, brings an ability to describe riding to a new level. The reader absorbs her fearlessness with admiration and awe. Never have I read a better description of an annual competition then in this debut novel.

Aside from it being a great read for horsey types, it captures something of the Depression, the thirties, the ruin that grabbed the most secure families, as if it had a hand on the back of their necks and pulled them down with tremendous force. Abandoned houses, quiet declines, suicide and peril are woven into this tale. As the Depression haunted the parents of my generation who were children during those frightening years, we are too quick to joke about all the carefully wrapped and preserved little bits of food in the freezer, the grandmothers who still collected rubber bands, the women who washed and saved the tin foil, even the ones who washed and dried plastic bags and hung them on the line; they kept up with these practices because they never lost their fear of the wolf at the door. In this book, the Depression is not depicted in dust bowls and bread lines, but rather stalking the genteel and ordered world of the privileged, where girls are suddenly yanked from their known realities and set out into an uncertain future. Family life seems similarly fragile, as if the precious and beautiful life in the orange groves left them vulnerable, only to be toppled by an unwelcome frost. The mothers were cocooned in their beautiful homes, with all rooms seen as exquisite and in perfect balance and order. Yet one event could destroy all and young women could heap shame on their families by one imprudent night.

 I remember that world; I remember my grandmothers with their dresses, and their silver tea services, their china, and their housekeepers, their luncheons and their stories, often involving one false move that led to ruin. You had to get a good husband at all costs; your house was, as Disclafani states, "both mother and father." Your daughters were kept at a curious distance; sexual awakening was feared and mistrusted. All of this is beautifully captured in this smart and terrific novel. What Disclafani manages to impart is that the camp girls were not delicate flowers- not girls who rode horses anyway. They were made of flesh and blood; they were familiar with the sound of their bones cracking, they took their cues from magnificent creatures whose noble blood they cherished. The barns were full of sweat and muck. They girls were expected to travel from the bold and the beautiful, from the rough and the wild, from the sheer abandon of a mad gallop, to the starched linen and polite conversation of the dinner table. Disclafani writes:

"I took pleasure in how good I was in the saddle, how well I knew my way around a horse. I was good at something in a way most people are never good at anything in their lives. Horses were a gift; how many people have such a constant in their life, separate from the rough and often beautiful mess that is their family?"


If you are heading to the beach or the cottage, if you are boarding a plane, or packing the camper, I would toss the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls into your weekend, canvas bag. If you know a great horsewoman, or two, or three, give this to them with a five star recommendation.

7 comments:

Sandymeer said...

Thank you for that very positive review. It's the second I've read regarding Disclafani's debut novel. And I'm a little thrown as the first review I read was not flattering at all. Although having said that, it's clear what the differences are between yourself, and the other reviewer: The other could find no way to associate with Thea, whilst you on the other hand share a love of horses and have the background experience of the same environment. I'm going to wait till after this weekend, when Disclafani gets interviewed by Elaine Charles the host of the Book report radio show.

Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

Thank you so much for the thoughtful comment. It is common to find disagreement about any novel. Reading is personal, and I am sure there are those who would not see Thea as a heroic character. As I do not feel that was the intent of the author, I was not let down, but rather intrigued by her struggle. There can be no argument regarding the strength of the prose. Each person reads according to their own criteria. 'Beautifully written,' would describe mine. I shall be interested to hear what you think.

Jennifer Rova said...

Thanks for the erudite review. I have looked at this book and had not decided if I want to read it or not. Now I do not only because it sounds like a great story but because of what I may learn about good writing.

Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

Thank you for the wise words. I always hope that the literary company I keep will have a trickle down effect.

Mary Jane Honegger said...

Beautifully written review, Liz. I know the author would be thrilled to read your summary of her novel and to know how much she touched one of her readers - the goal of every writer. I too will read the book. Thanks for sharing it with us.

Susan Alexander said...

I don't know when a review has made me as hungry to read a book as this one has !

Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

I want all my horsey friends to know about it.