It is seldom that a novel from a small university press can compete with the offerings from the big houses in New York. A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage may be the best novel this reviewer has read this year. Its quality and story-telling remind one of The Adventures of Roderick Random, Great Expectations and The Grapes of Wrath among others. The winner of the 2012 "Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction," A Death has the potential to become a classic American picaresque novel.
Phillip Pirrip, known as Pip throughout his life, has been delivered to the White Camellia Orphanage with his half-brother Otto by his evil sister. It is entirely appropriate that the orphanage is named "White Camellia," as the Knights of the White Camellia was a group of white, upper crust males who agreed with the tenets of the Ku Klux Klan. The owner of the orphanage was a member of the Knights. When the novel opens in September 1935, Pip is ten years old and has been at the orphanage 3 years with Otto who is of mixed race. One day the owner of the orphanage takes Otto for a ride. Pip awakens at 4:17 a.m. sensing something is wrong. He goes out to find Otto splayed on a barbed wire fence - dead.
The beautifully precise descriptions that set the scene in the opening pages are marvelous. Not only do we "see" the physical landscape, we "see" the spiritual landscape of Depression era Georgia. There is a bottle tree to capture "haints" so they cannot haunt the locals and a conch shell typical of grave sites in some parts of the traditional South. Pip cleans a stained finger by first rubbing dirt on it; dirt works as an abrasive so that soap and water can be more effective. In sonorous and felicitous language reminiscent of Faulkner and Wolfe, Youmans describes "air slowed to a treacle," "the night's smother of warmth," and "who would go and do such a thing."
But, all these characters were no more than an "aimless tribe…an unconnected troop." "He wanted to be with people who had a meaning to one another; he wanted somebody who cared." A chance encounter on a train eventually leads him home and to resolution of Otto's death. Yet, to the end of his days, the sound of trains is the sound of far away beckoning him to leave off today and strike out for tomorrow.
Youmans has woven a tight tale of an unsolved murder that lurks in the background and the search for love within family, a story that will resonate in the hearts of its readers. It is a quintessentially Southern novel, rich in characters, language, and culture. One wishes, however, that this novel will not get shunted into the regional box and been seen as only a Southern novel. Its themes and the power of its language, the forceful flow of its storyline and its characters have earned the right to a broad national audience.
Susan Marlene Youmans is the author of five novels, four collections of poetry, two books for young readers, and a number of short stories. Her novel The Wolf Pit won the "Michael Shaara Award for Excellence in Civil War Fiction," and she has won the "Theodore Hoepfner Award" twice for her short stories. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she lives in Cooperstown, New York, with her husband and three children.