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 desires.

The allusion to Huck Finn’s self-damnation in his refusal to betray Jim offers another prototype of Pip, and he does “light out for the territory,” albeit with a result that Huck might find less than acceptable. Yet the resolution brings Pip home—the wandering Odysseus figure who discovers himself in his return from the journey out and back. 

To get a sense of the demands of reading A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, one has to understand that “rampire,” a word whose recurrence becomes a motif in the novel, is an archaic variant form of “rampart.” “Rampire” occurs in a passage from Clarendon’s History of the English Civil Wars that Pip has memorized and quotes to himself as encouragement—obscurely, since he does not understand the term. But then, the whole purpose and direction of Pip’s journey are obscure, and this obscurity is at the core of this picaresque novel. Youmans nods to eighteenth-century practitioners of the picaresque in the epigraphs she provides for each of the chapters. The conscious allusions are happily at odds with the innocence of her protagonist, and indicate the sophistication of Youmans’s narrative.

There is much to delight a reader in this novel, an abundance of riches: a four-page bravura description of an arrival of a train as seen through Pip’s eyes; his creation of a new mythology based on the anagrams that can be formed from the word “Earth”; and an extraordinary scene in which a grieving child gropes to find an opening in the air in hopes of accompanying the soul of her dead brother. We have the requisite Gothic characters, those pure, crazed products of America—like Till, Pip’s adoptive grandfather, and his tenant “Princess Casimiria,” self-proclaimed descendant of the Revolutionary War hero Count Pulaski, whose presence with Pip at a parent-teacher conference provokes a hilarious clash of misunderstandings. The novel’s scenes of hobo travel, replete with the casual brutality of rail-yard “bulls” and the violence in the boxcars, are set against the generosity and simple goodness of so many caught westering in the Great Depression. Youmans’s prose is highly metaphoric, rich in evocations that reverberate profoundly, like Pip’s evening wonder in a eucalyptus forest, where “He touched a tree like mottled silver marble. The wind fell away, and the mosaic of leaves above him grew still: blue, light green, gray-green, and jade.”

That rich prose fashions a journey of substantial self-discovery. In one camp-fire scene, a fellow farm laborer jumps suddenly for Pip’s seat near the fire and lashes out with his knife, lacerating Pip’s hands. What results, for Pip, is something approaching a revolutionary understanding of violence and what it means in the pitiless life of the underdog. “Maybe it made him feel free,” he reflects later. “Maybe he had to tear his way out.... Maybe he was breaking his fetters.” Functioning as a kind of stylistic beacon is Pip’s discovery of metaphor, the linking of unlike things in revealing likenesses.

For the first time he had really understood the knife he had seen in the sky on the morning of Otto’s death as the union of two things, cloud and blade. One frail and one steel, the two had met and fused in a forge of dawn. That was a kind of magic.

This death—whose effect seemed to coalesce in the blue eyes “burning in the faces of men,” leaving Pip certain “he would never be able to look away from their eyes or from their secret knowledge”—is a vast synecdoche for all that threatens him. His immediate remedy, besides that bulwark of “rampire,” is the small conch shell from atop Otto’s grave that contains the spirit of what was. Unlike his namesake from Dickens, Pip never falls prey to inflated self-esteem. He is all too aware of the dangers issuing from the blue-eyed men, even as he confronts the family of Otto’s murderer. The particular mechanism by which the murder is solved is perhaps the weakest of the plot turns, but the solution ushers in resolution, at Otto’s very gravesite.

As a form, the picaresque novel is dependent on great storytelling, and Youmans spins a captivating yarn. Her voice is expressive and cajoling, her tendency to rhapsody chastened by the gritty detail with which she furnishes her young hero’s adventures. Even as it displays its traditional stylistic elements, A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage offers something distinct and modern, transcending the Southern Gothic form. The traveler completes his journey; he has not only come home but found out what home is. As is so often the case in a tale driven by myth, the end rests squarely on the beginning, death and birth inevitably conjoined, conveying to us a sense of experience that is both rampire and release.

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

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Published in the 2013-06-01 issue: View Contents
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