Monday, July 21, 2014

A New Book Club & a Yonahlossee Author Encounter

Aside from leaving friends and family, my greatest sadness in moving out of New York has been the loss of my beloved Idlewild book club. For four years, I met monthly with a group of one-time strangers in the most perfect indie bookstore on W 19th St. We were all so wildly different—in terms of age, background, experience, and taste—but we developed a great rapport, exploring such a wide variety of books that forced us to read outside our comfort zone. I have always been so grateful to have found that little literary niche.

Upon landing in Nashville, I decided to investigate our own indie bookstore's book club, which is how I found myself in Parnassus Books for the first time last Wednesday night to discuss Anton DiSclafani's debut bestseller, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls.

It's 1930, just as the Great Depression is starting to bare its fangs. Thea Atwell, our fifteen-year-old narrator, has been cast out of her Florida home and shipped to a girls' camp in the mountains of North Carolina. We know from the beginning that Thea is somehow to blame for a recent family tragedy, but just exactly what she did is a mystery the author slowly draws out over the novel's 300+ pages. As the narration cuts back and forth, from new experiences to ones in the past, we are shown pieces of Thea's puzzle that illuminate her world and situation.

We quickly get the impression that Thea is much more something than the other girls her age. At Yonahlossee, social status is a tricky web of money, heritage, personality, and skill on the back of a horse. Thea is sharp and shrewd and understands how to navigate such a complex social strata. She knows who to befriend and who to avoid, and she has a mature sense of tact and awareness that puts her in a powerful position. Thea is independent and fearless, but she's also brazen and reckless, unaware or unconcerned of the damage her behaviors can inflict.

When I perused this book on Goodreads, I was highly surprised by the number of 1 star reviews it garnered. Many complaints seem to be of the "whiny" or "selfish" narrator, but this quality hardly seems one that could elicit such vitriol from readers. Thea's level of "selfishness" is found often in narrators, especially teen ones, and though her behavior is somewhat shocking, the more interesting aspect of this story is the environment that leads to her feelings and actions. I think dismissing this character as selfish and the plot as empty does a disservice to the author and the quiet portrait she paints on Thea's world as influenced by her times and circumstance.

Yonahlossee puts Thea in an environment totally opposite of what she has known. She's been isolated in the remote citrus fields of Florida with only her twin brother and cousin for young companions, and now she's surrounded by many young women with little idea on how to interact with them. She's facing a whole new world of interactions and relationships that tests her developing sense of morals and self. On top of that, she's growing into womanhood in a time when women are regarded as unimportant. And being surrounded by young women whose futures seem to be inconsequential, Thea asserts her power the only ways she can: by taking what she wants and being the best on a horse. In regard to certain critics, I am left wondering if it's just the nature of Thea's behavior that colors opinions, and if these readers are wrongly attributing the source of their discomfort.

With Yonahlossee author Anton DiSclafani
The great perk of last week's meeting at Parnassus was that the book's author, Anton DiSclafani, was there to join the circle. I was curious (and also somewhat skeptical) as to how open a discussion would actually be if the author of the book was sitting there with us. I am happy to report, though, that she was just wonderful and added so much to the conversation. I am always interested in the inspirations that lead to a book and how the ideas develop. Anton walked us through her transition from short stories to a novel and how difficult it was to fully flesh out a novel-sized idea.

Further, she described the motivations behind particular scenes and why she told the story the way she did. Prior to the meeting, I had noticed the subtleties through which the author seems to make her statement; Thea's actions are very large, but the reasons behind her actions are much quieter on paper. When I mentioned this during the meeting, Anton explained that she is telling the story through Thea's eyes, so because Thea lacks this mature awareness of the world, we as the reader also see it through hazy goggles; Thea is figuring out her situation on a larger scale, without a complete understanding of it, so we see them as smaller pieces of the puzzle as well. While many readers seemed to hate Thea, I pitied her more than anything. She's a young woman isolated by her living arrangements and disregarded because of her gender. She doesn't need to be liked, and I'm not agreeing with or justifying her behavior, but I think, as a character, she deserves a great deal of consideration. This book ended up being great for discussion—there are enough gray areas of behavior and morality that keep the conversation lively!

In hearing articulate explanations and rationales like this, I gained an even bigger appreciation for this story and what the author was saying with it. Anton was incredibly personal, very well-spoken, and graciously thick-skinned, so no side-stepping or tip-toeing was necessary! I enjoyed hearing about her experiences in writing a second novel, and I look forward to reading future works from her.

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