It’s a rare achievement when a work of fiction contains enough detail and nuance about a particular place in history that you, the reader, feel like you understand and inhabit that world. That’s how I felt reading Marly Youmans’ A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, which is part murder mystery, part road story, but also a poetic rendering of life in the rural South of the 1930s and early 40s.
White Camellia tells the lonely story of Pip, a Depression-era orphan who loses his half-brother to a horrific, unsolved murder at the Georgia orphanage where he lives. Soon after, Pip decides to leave his squalid existence of picking cotton and sleeping in close quarters, “breathing in the scent of near-naked boys and the stink of the chamber pots.” It is the golden age of the hobos, so Pip chooses a life crossing the country and hopping the rails. Like another fictional orphan named Pip, his coming-of-age journey comes at a brutal cost, but he also experiences kindness from a series of eccentric strangers who are drawn to the equally eccentric and fiercely independent Pip.
Throughout the tale, Youmans captures the surroundings, mood and language of the era so convincingly you almost expect to find red clay caked around your shoes when you set the book down. Her description of a giant locomotive arriving at a small town depot is just one example of how aptly she sets the scene:
The monster took no notice but plunged, vaulted, and dived over the slight rolls of the land, shaking the earth as easily as a hound shakes a kitten, spewing cinders and smoke, drive wheels pounding and somersaulting over Emanuel County, so swift and thunderous that it seemed nothing in the world could cry halt! to such an extravagance of force. High as a house, the engine swooped down on Pip, hissing and hooting in his face, in his very being, turning him inside out, ringing him like a bell.
If you enjoy beautifully crafted descriptive prose and a coming-of-age story that is in turns heartbreaking and uplifting, check out A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage. You can find it on Amazon.com, or at www.mupress.org.