"A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage" by Marly Youmans


A hobo’s life can be a sorry one, and for a pre-teen lad taking to the rails, scrounging a meal here or an odd job there, it’s no way to grow up. But for Pip Tattnal in the American South during the Great Depression of the 1930s, it seemed a reasonable alternative to life in an orphanage, especially since his younger brother Otto was killed there, suddenly and mysteriously.  Pip is an exceptional child, suspicious of adults, distant from boys and girls his age, and preternaturally intelligent.  He has received a limited exposure to mythology and the classics, but his active mind and vivid imagination recognizes depths of meaning in the world around him: fly stings recall the spirit of the English Rebellion, a conch shell that he and Otto unearthed becomes imbued with ghostly powers.  In “A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage”, Marly Youmans tells of Pip’s growing up during a difficult time and in a setting that merits poetic expression.

The moon rose, her outline the most perfect O Pip could imagine, and at once it seemed to him that the whole universe cried out his brother’s name.  The moon was Otto’s, and the stars dancing in orbit around its O, and the thousands of miles of interplanetary space into which his brother’s soul had been flung, seeking the door beyond time.  Unless maybe it curled inside a shell in the pocket of his bib overalls.  Grazing a finger across the place where the conch lay lodged, Pip wondered whether a ghost might be the same thing as a soul or whether they were different entirely so that one’s soul could be flung like a stone from a slingshot across the worlds while the misty limbs ofa ghost remained behind like a thumbprint.

“Otto Tattnal, Otto Tattnal, Otto Tattnal…”  He chanted in a low voice, his words matching with and lost in the rhythm of the train.
— from “A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage”

Pip runs away from the orphanage, visits the cemetery where Otto and his parents are buried, climbs aboard a Southern Railway freight local and is nearly injured but rescued by a fellow hobo.  The boy fits into the legendary hobo subculture, ubiquitous during the Depression.  He ends up in the Savannah freightyards, beaten by a railroad “bull”.  In pain and starving, motivated partly by fantasies of “king’s men and rebels”, he stumbles his way to the protection of Excelsior Tillman, a kindly father figure who has created a miniature village called Roseville. Pip is restored to good health, exposed to books and poetry, helped along by an eccentric but supportive community. He feels he could settle down there near Savannah — Tillman even enrolls him in school, although the teachers are put off by a boy who speaks of shoguns and Confucious — he passes through puberty and into an adolescence characterized by wanderlust.  He plans to return to the hobo’s life and wants a married woman from the community and her baby to come with him.  At the last moment they stay behind and Pip is again off on his own.  He meets a widow named Opal (again, the O) whom he idolizes and with whom he has a sexual afffair, but she also will not accompany him.  So far, Pip has not journeyed far from coastal Georgia, and his greatest journeys were in his mind.

He spent hours imagining the history of Thera, a world parallel to his own, with much that reflected the history of Earth in a distorted mirror: there was no violence, no hatred in its chronicles.  He spent hours lavishing detail on his creation.  He might take an afternoon to design one of the fantasy temples of Thiani, the elaborate clusters of rooftop pinnacles symbolizing the Limayah Mountains.  A multitude of six-sided shrines represented the six points of the Theran compass.  Six perimeter walls were each pierced by many doors, one of which was a gateway to another of the Seven Worlds: to Herat, Heart, Rathe, Erath, Thare, or Earth.
— from “A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage”

Pip does wander up to New York State and even has sojourns into New York City and San Francisco, but he returns to Georgia and to his sister Lil Tattnal Tattnal, who had been “as obsessed with hunting him down as he had been with flying from his own history and starting over.”  She and her sons Roiphe and Alden are real family and give Pip the stability he needs to complete his quest.  By now also World War II is catching up with the nation and the Tattnals.

“A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage”, the fifth novel by Marly Youmans, is winner of the Ferrol Sams Award, given to “an exceptional work of fiction that speaks to the human condition in a Southern context”.  Some of the characters in her new novel were inspired by real people.  Marly is a native of South Carolina who has lived in many parts of the USA (though not as a hobo) and is now a resident of Cooperstown, NY.

Her newest volume of poetry is “The Throne of Psyche” and due soon is “The Foliate Head“, which one critic stated will “evoke an otherness that only Coleridge attained.”   Later this year “Thaliad”will appear, which Marly describes as a blank verse epic.


Photo courtesy of Ralph Daily via Flickr.

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