There & Back Again

A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage
Marly Youmans
Mercer University Press, $24, 288 pp.

South Carolina native Marly Youmans has published four novels, two young adult books, and three collections of poetry. In A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, she offers a Southern Gothic coming-of-age novel, featuring the precocious, eleven-year-old Pip, a hobo who travels back and forth across Depression-era America. Driven by a desire to understand life, Pip rides the rails to migrant farming work, sexual awakening, and a notably romantic contact with nature.

The story is bracketed by the murder of Pip’s mixed-race half-brother, Otto, in the orphanage that gives the book its title. That racist killing propels Pip, plagued by migraine headaches and a ceaseless inner monologue, on a journey that ends only with the discovery of Otto’s murderer. Youmans rather burdens the young traveler with great philosophical ruminations:

Wasn’t his world a landscape like a furnace of burning darkness, without one tendril of the hope that comes to all? Well, then, he would be damned; he would taste pleasures that might be a reason to live. There was nothing but now for him anymore, no goal or dream of the future, and no guide but his own...

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About the Author

Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.