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The Wolf Pit
Harvest Books, 2003
342 pp., $14.00
Still Writing the Civil War
Marly Youmans writes novels like a poet, leaping through her story using images as stepping stones. She has a wonderful way with words, rendering wolves that "trickle away between trees like silvery water," or pebbles tossed in a well "breaking the image of the watcher's face into fractal pieces as the stones slowed and wobbled faintly in the water." Such images—the "wolf pit" is one she elaborates and embroiders throughout the book—make the meat and marrow of her work.
The Wolf Pit follows two main characters through the waning years of the Civil War. One is a slave, Agate, whose tongue is cut out by a vengeful master. She miraculously buys her own freedom and finds her way to a remote Virginia farm. The other character is a Confederate soldier, Robin, whose mother owns that farm. Agate and Robin never meet, but their stories intertwine: black and white, female and male, slave and free.
Agate's story is a vividly imagined yet familiar tale of the horrors of slavery. Uncle Tom's Cabin launched this series, Beloved updated it, but the main text does not much change. Abolitionists charged that the chief crime of slaveholding lay not in cruelty (brandings, whippings, separation of families), horrific as that could be, but in stealing a human being's moral agency—the right to direct his or her own life. Slavery they called man-stealing. They might have said soul-stealing. Slavery novels mean to make us feel that theft.
Agate has the good fortune to be raised in the home of Miss Fanny and Mr. Thomas, enlightened slaveholders who teach her to read, encourage her talents, and even proudly, privately publish a volume of her writings. All this refinement comes to nothing when her real, legal master takes over. Then she loses her tongue and nearly everything else. She has been given the gift of writing and then deprived of the possibility of speech.
The same mountain home to which Agate escapes represents, for Robin, a mental refuge from the suffering of war. Robin is a dreamer ...