Thursday, November 14, 2013

the heat waves of its solar outcry: reading A Death At The White Camellia Orphanage

Eyes still closed, the boy leaped from the steps into the sand yard, plunging through the heavy odor of hedge. "When I get to be a man," he thought, "I will go to England and see the battlegrounds,and I’ll be a titled Childe of noble and gentle birth, and I’ll know what a train-band is and what a rampire is. I’ll ride on wings of horse." It was a part of the boy’s strangeness that he could draw to mind great swaths of the words in the three books that had belonged to his dead father even though he hardly knew what some of them meant or who Prince Rupert or the writer, the Earl of Clarendon, might be. His teacher at school had been no help, scorning his questions—did not like any of the pupils in overalls with no shirts whether they were from the orphanage or not.

That's from the first chapter of Marly Youmans' 2012 novel A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, a historical novel set in the American South during the Great Depression. The prose nods to Faulkner, to Shakespeare, to Yeats, to epic poetry; it vibrates with rich color and detail and feeling.

"Otto!" Pip cried, his voice returning with an "O, o, o" as he shouted the name over, and the dagger in the sky came nearer, searing the furnace of the cotton fields with its heat as the boy bounded up, yelling his brother’s name, and laughter with a fragrance of hedge sprang from his mouth. His voice pulsed out of his throat like blood, and merriment battled out of his chest like the beating cry of a war drum. And the helpless roar that from the distance of The White Camellia Orphanage sounded so like a scream seemed to involve the very skies in its clamor, as in a rhythm of call and response. The sun swelled and soared to become a rosy "O" burning above the plum trees, and the heat waves of its solar outcry aroused the tobacco leaves and the rosined pines and the snake-dripping swamps like immense but unheard mirth.

Pip is Pip Tatnall, a ten year-old boy whose father, an aging builder of bridges across Georgia's many rivers, has died. Pip's mother has already passed on and it is discovered that Tatnall the bridge builder has fathered possibly scores of children on a dozen or twenty women, not all of them white. Pip and his half-brother Otto are sent to the White Camellia Orphanage, a charity workhouse where boys and girls work in cotton fields and receive regular beatings. Pip is crying Otto's name because he has found Otto murdered, crucified to a barbed wire fence on an early summer morning. Otto, we learn, was a light-skinned mulatto. Someone has decided that a child with Negro blood has no right to the charity of the White Camellia Orphanage.

Otto is dead, and Pip has no tie to the orphanage, the village nearby, the earth or anyone left on it. When a year or so has passed, Pip steals away from the farm and hops a freight train and is swept away on an odyssey. I am still reading the novel, so I can't say anything about the plot. Not that I would anyway, as I don't read for plot so much. Let me just say that A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage (winner of the Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction and named by D.G. Myers as one of 2012's best books) is a beautiful book writ in beautiful lyrical prose and I don't know why I put off reading it for so long. I may quote more from it tomorrow or later this week, if I can come up with the right sort of reductionist simile to describe Youmans' writing. One is definitely inside the narrative as one reads, surrounded by color and shape. It comes to life vividily off the page, does this story, which is no surprise given that Youmans is also an award-winning poet.

This little post is not doing justice to the novel. I may take another stab at it. For now this is what I got, though.

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