Thursday, May 23, 2013

White Camellia review at Commonweal

Edward T. Wheeler, "There and Back Again." A review of A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage

in Commonweal,
June 2013

A few clips from a long, thoughtful review:

There is much to delight a reader in this novel, an abundance of riches: a four-page bravura description of an arrival of a train as seen through Pip’s eyes; his creation of a new mythology based on the anagrams that can be formed from the word “Earth”; and an extraordinary scene in which a grieving child gropes to find an opening in the air in hopes of accompanying the soul of her dead brother. We have the requisite Gothic characters, those pure, crazed products of America—like Till, Pip’s adoptive grandfather, and his tenant “Princess Casimiria,” self-proclaimed descendant of the Revolutionary War hero Count Pulaski, whose presence with Pip at a parent-teacher conference provokes a hilarious clash of misunderstandings. The novel’s scenes of hobo travel, replete with the casual brutality of rail-yard “bulls” and the violence in the boxcars, are set against the generosity and simple goodness of so many caught westering in the Great Depression. Youmans’s prose is highly metaphoric, rich in evocations that reverberate profoundly, like Pip’s evening wonder in a eucalyptus forest, where “He touched a tree like mottled silver marble. The wind fell away, and the mosaic of leaves above him grew still: blue, light green, gray-green, and jade.”
That rich prose fashions a journey of substantial self-discovery. In one camp-fire scene, a fellow farm laborer jumps suddenly for Pip’s seat near the fire and lashes out with his knife, lacerating Pip’s hands. What results, for Pip, is something approaching a revolutionary understanding of violence and what it means in the pitiless life of the underdog. “Maybe it made him feel free,” he reflects later. “Maybe he had to tear his way out.... Maybe he was breaking his fetters.”

As a form, the picaresque novel is dependent on great storytelling, and Youmans spins a captivating yarn. Her voice is expressive and cajoling, her tendency to rhapsody chastened by the gritty detail with which she furnishes her young hero’s adventures. Even as it displays its traditional stylistic elements, A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage offers something distinct and modern, transcending the Southern Gothic form. The traveler completes his journey; he has not only come home but found out what home is. As is so often the case in a tale driven by myth, the end rests squarely on the beginning, death and birth inevitably conjoined, conveying to us a sense of experience that is both rampire and release.


  1. Wonderful and wonderfully precise review of your "tale . . . that is both rampire and release." Makes me want to reread "Orphanage." to see what I missed the first time. Will have to borry it back from my friend Molly!

  2. Thank you, Mary Boxley Bullington! It's quite a bit longer; I learned a few things.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.