A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage
A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage
Marly Youmans
Mercer University Press, 2012
288 pp., $24.00

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Linda McCullough Moore

A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage

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Pip settles with a family, of one sort or another, for a time, and then moves on. I found it remarkable that Pip reveals himself only in the company of kindness. Pip's first new family is made up of an assortment of people whose reflexive kindness is outdone only by their world-class eccentricity, their stark oddity, depicted with a tempered hand. These are no clowns, this is no cartoon, despite the red wheelbarrow serving as the chariot of the woman who calls herself the Countess, and the Lilliputian village created out of crushed materials and refuse by the man who calls himself Excelsior. One thinks that every word that Youmans chooses is made to do six jobs. There is no vacant detail. Each word, each name, is made to count; each incident is telling. This book is lyrical, but it's a lyricism in the service of a project, one fine and wide and worthy and meant to do us good. Here is understanding and wise instruction in the ways of considering ourselves and other people, told with the elegance of a new simplicity.

The Countess and Excelsior take Pip in after he's been beaten senseless, a state Youmans describes in ways that force contagion. Pip's is a harrowing delirium, much like his migraine auras, both of which we're made to feel and reel from. I have not read another writer who so perfectly captures in words the scary wiles of brain activity suddenly gone awry. Youmans speaks into experience that unspeakable disequilibrium. Pip is plagued and he is blessed. He has his abiding love for his lost Otto, and he has one of life's sweet gifts: a consuming interest in learning—in this case, history. He's a boy who grows to manhood, dividing his time between freight trains and libraries.

I am a Christian (God's mercy wild as that), and books like this help me know God better. They reacquaint me with his grace, they send me to my knees to offer thanks that in his generosity, he's made a world that's interesting. Pip is blessed with an awareness that this is true, and with one dearer blessing still: through all the years of all his journeys back and forth across the country during the dark days of the Great Depression, his half-sister Lil offers meals to every hobo who ever comes her way, in the hope that one of them might one day come upon her Pip, riding in some boxcar, and send him home to her.

Any life is cumulative. Our conclusions at the end of the day ask us to incorporate all the little bits and pieces of what will have been a lifetime. We know that. Pip does too. Standing by his brother's grave, long years later, now a man,

He stared until his eyes ached with pent tears. If this meant love, perhaps it was easier to live without it, just as it had been easier to turn his back on some, just as time and again he had caught the death-dealing red ball express and let the train hurl him away from somebody who was fond of him and might have held him fast. He might still be resting in the heart of some eucalyptus wood, telling a never-ending story to Cora. Or he might be living on the brink of the prairie sea with Opal and their child of dreams, an Otto bright as the moon.

But what Pip does with all his might-have-beens and what he does with what-just-is is lovely to behold. What Youmans does with only words is beautiful to see.

So. Now then. You know what to do. Power down. Grab your jacket. Go for a long, long walk. And when you get back home, read Marly Youmans.

Linda McCullough Moore lives and writes in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her most recent fiction is a collection of linked stories, This Road Will Take Us Closer to the Moon.

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