I love what I’ve read of Marly Youmans’ work. Her words remind me of snowdrops. I’m using her story, “The Horse Angel,” for a class I’m teaching this spring. The story is quiet, lovely, and tender without being sticky-sweet. It’s also great example of how to do tricky maneuvers well, for example, using two points of view in a short story. In the story, Youmans performs feats that new writers are often told not to attempt, but shows why rules should be broken, if broken well. I am eager to read her forthcoming novel, Winner of The Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction, A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage from Mercer University Press. I’m also honored to participate in the collective interview she’s giving at several blogs, in anticipation of the novel’s release on March 30, 2012. You can order the novel from the publisher here.
As I re-read your story, “The Horse Angel,” I noticed a fascination with layers of orphandom. Of the ghost in the mirror, you write, “…Edward and I thought that he looked as though he’d mislaid something of value and couldn’t think where it might be. Or maybe it’s his family he’s mislaid. Maybe he can’t find his way back to them.” The newly widowed Elsbeth dreams of her past, of being a sort of parent orphan: “…we are young man and woman again but changed, and often I hold my lost boy in my arms.” And Mary, the younger neighbor of Elsbeth was violently orphaned when her stepfather killed her mother and then himself. Your new novel, A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, centers around the journey of a young orphan Pip Tatnell. What is it that compels you to write about the orphan?
Reading that quote from “The Horse Angel,” I immediately remembered the Rachel in Moby-Dick: how Stubb thinks that the captain of the ship has lost something, perhaps his watch, only to find that it is his precious son that he has lost to the sea. Some of my favorite characters are orphans—Ishmael is an orphan, and the indomitable Jane Eyre, and that other Pip from Great Expectations, and many more. “Orphan” is a state that often produces maximum trials and also may allow maximum freedom of thought and movement; it is automatically a condition set apart, a kind of state and place where dramatic things may happen. Fairy tales and stories often kill off the parents before or at the start.
I had not considered a relationship between “The Horse Angel” and A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage until you mentioned the two together. Perhaps one of your students assigned to read the story will read the book and tell me about it!
Although I am reticent about such matters and don’t care much for author talk about family or personal life (I have a distaste for the idea of misfortunes being used as a sensational marketing “hook,” though it is often done), I will say that my family suffered a death of one of its members in my childhood. Such losses shape people and do not end or go away but leave traces. The sense that something is terribly missing can be quite strong and leave a child with the sense of being orphaned from the way the world ought to be. No doubt that childhood feeling colors “The Horse Angel” and A Death from the White Camellia Orphanage as well.
More about the novel can be found at Marly Youmans’ blog.
Comments from writers about A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage:
“A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage tells of a young boy’s travels through the black heart of Depression America and his search for light both metaphorical and real. Writing with a controlled lyrical passion, Marly Youmans has crafted the finest, and the truest period novel I’ve read in years.” –Lucius Shepard
“Marly Youmans’ new book is a vividly realized, panoramic novel of survival during The Great Depression. There is poetry in Youmans’ writing, but she also knows how to tell a riveting story.” –Ron Rash
“In A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, Marly Youmans gives us a beautifully written and exceptionally satisfying novel. The book reads as if Youmans took the best parts of The Grapes of Wrath, On the Road, The Reivers, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and crafted from them a tale both magical and fine. Her rich language and lovely turns of phrase invite the reader to linger. Ironically, there is at the same time a subtle pressure throughout the novel to turn the page, because Youmans has achieved that rarest of all accomplishments: she has created a flawed hero about which we care. A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage is one of the best books I have read.” –Raymond L. Atkins
From the cover:
After a death at the White Camellia Orphanage, young Pip Tatnall leaves Lexsy, Georgia to become a road kid, riding the rails east, west, and north. A bright, unusual boy who is disillusioned at a young age, Pip believes that he sees guilt shining in the faces of men wherever he goes. On his picaresque journey, he sweeps through society, revealing the highest and lowest in human nature and only slowly coming to self-understanding. He searches the points of the compass for what will help, groping for a place where he can feel content, certain that he has no place where he belongs and that he rides the rails through a great darkness. His difficult path to collect enough radiance to light his way home is the road of a boy struggling to come to terms with the cruel but sometimes lovely world of Depression-era America.
On Youmans’ prior forays into the past, reviewers praised her “spellbinding force” (Bob Sumner, Orlando Sentinel), “prodigious powers of description” (Philip Gambone, New York Times), “serious artistry,” “unobtrusively beautiful language,” and “considerable power” (Fred Chappell, Raleigh News and Observer), “haunting, lyrical language and fierce intelligence” (starred review, Publishers Weekly.) Howard Bahr wrote of The Wolf Pit, “Ms. Youmans is an inspiration to every writer who must compete with himself. I had thought Catherwood unsurpassable, but Ms. Youmans has done it. Her characters are real; they live and move in the stream of Time as if they had passed only yesterday. Her lyricism breaks my heart and fills me with envy and delight. No other writer I know of can bring the past to us so musically, so truly.”