A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage
Marly Youmans
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Buy *A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage* by Marly Youmansonline

A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage
Marly Youmans
Mercer University Press
262 pages
April 2013
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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With “A savage laugh, a riddle and reply,” it is immediately apparent why Marly Youmans’ novel A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage won Mercer University’s Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction. Youman’s prose perfectly captures Southern culture, speech patterns, and the difficulties faced during the Depression Era, just as the acclaimed author Sams achieved in his classic coming-of-age tale, Run with the Horsemen.

For Youman’s main character, Pip Tatnall,

“It seemed to him that Georgia and probably the whole country had its share of the squirrelly, and maybe this part no more than most. From experience and the examples of the Countess and Excelsior Tillman, he concluded that the U. S. of A. was, in general, a land of looners and that perhaps madness was essential.”
While Pip has definite reason to be crazy, he is not. Everyone he encounters recognizes that there is something unusual about the boy, but most view his encyclopedic tendencies as quite phenomenal. (Today, he would likely be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.) Pip becomes an orphan when his young mother dies trying to deliver another child and then his philandering, much older father passes away. Luckily he has a half-brother, Otto, to comfort once they are brought to the White Camellia Orphanage:
“The kinship bond between them was tangible, such that the children seemed inseparable, a blood brotherhood of commingled beings. Loss and grief had only made their physical need and ache for each other more clearly manifest.”
But one near-dawn morning, Pip is faced with an act of such bewildering hatred that it forever changes his life. Youmans manages to clearly paint Pip’s difficulties as he strives for understanding. As the story evolves, readers will cheer Pip’s resiliency, his intellect, his compassion, and finally, his brand of justice.

Pip wisely makes plans to leave the orphanage as soon as possible. He rides the rails, traveling across the country with occasional stops to work as a field hand. Along the way, Pip encounters cruelty, compassion, acceptance, sorrow and well-meaning advice. He learns firsthand about longing, sex, love, guilt, regret, the price of pride and what it takes to be happy. He also continues to collect information regarding Otto; “…the original wound, the first he could remember with great clarity.” So while this book is absolutely a coming-of-age story, it is also a mystery that works ever so slowly toward a solution.

A host of minor characters facilitate Pip’s lessons: Miss Versie and Mr. Jimmie who run the orphanage and may not be as benign as they seem; Opal, the widow who gives him lasting mementos; Excelsior Tillman, with his kind heart and ambitious hands; Countess Casimiria, who is granted a strange sort of dignity by all who encounter her; and Clemmie and her family, sparking the first notion of future contentment in Pip.

When holding Clemmie’s baby, Pip is confused:

“Oh, this was—what? He had approached the crux of something, though he did not know what it was. He felt quite certain for a minute that something indefinable was close to him, almost on his tongue, some coin for meaning—something about life and how to spend it. Did the baby have some news for him from the world before birth? He felt strongly that he was about to remember something that he had once known and then forgotten.”
Later, sharing quarters with Swain, Irisanne and their two daughters, Pip finds the intimacy of sorrow simply too much for him. Luckily repeated talk of a Tatnall, who feeds railroad tramps in search of a lost relative, reaches Pip at an appealing time. Lil, Roiphe and Alden prove a near picture-perfect family—a family willing to help lay to rest Pip’s misgivings about Otto.

Youmans is a successful author of novels, poetry collections, young reader books and short story compilations. Her novel The Wolf Pit won the Michael Shaara Award for Excellence in Civil War Fiction. Her most recent work left me with a lingering affection for Pip—and the distinct image of listening to his now gravelly voice reveal a past time peopled with humorous characters, surprising settings, true emotions and the unexpected, ideal ending.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Leslie Raith, 2013

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