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A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage 2012

Read or download chapter one at Scribd
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Winner of the Ferrol Sams Award
Judge's statement: "Ms. Youmans gives us a beautifully written and exceptionally satisfying novel with rich language and lovely turns of phrase that invite the reader to linger on every page."

Silver Award, ForeWord BOTYA

A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage for 
The National Book Award and the Pulitzer. *

"Best of"
  •     On Books and Culture's Favorite Books of 2012: here
  •     On critic D. G. Myer's Best Books of 2012 at A Commonplace Blog
  •     ForeWord 2012 BOTYA finalist in the general fiction category

It is seldom that a novel from a small university press can compete with the offerings from the big houses in New York.  A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage may be the best novel this reviewer has read this year. Its quality and story-telling remind one of The Adventures of Roderick Random, Great Expectations, and The Grapes of Wrath, among others. The winner of the 2012 "Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction, A Death has the potential to become a classic American picaresque novel. One wishes, however, that this novel will not get shunted into the regional box and be seen only as a Southern novel. Its themes and the power of its language, the forceful flow of its storyline and its characters have earned the right to a broad national audience. 30 July 2012 John M. Formy-Duval

Arsenio Orteza, Notable Books, "Four Notable Books of Fiction,"
Pip Tattnal, the memorable protagonist in this Depression-era, Southern gothic coming-of-age story, flees from an impoverished orphanage a year after his younger brother’s murder there. Plagued with migraines and autistic tendencies, and gifted with an incredible memory and love of language and history, Pip is an oddity among the hobos he meets crisscrossing the country by train. He encounters cruelty and odd strangers who are kind—but he always searches for something he can’t name and only occasionally senses. Youmans’ evocative writing and colorful characters make this novel a rare pleasure that beautifully depicts the power of love.

Comments from writers

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

The novel "works beautifully on this symbolic level just as it works beautifully on the surface level. It's quite a feat. . . . It is, however, a deeply moral book, written in gorgeous glittering prose, entirely earthbound in its story and not afraid of poking into the dark corners of real life but also fearlessly--if in a more subtle way--pointing away from that darkness." --Scott G. F. Bailey
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

Reviews and notices 

Shelf Awareness: Handselling Favorite: Nancy Olson's Novel Choice
"A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage" is one of those books that grabs you from the beginning," said Nancy Olson, owner of Quail Ridge Books and Music, Raleigh, N.C. "It's powerfully moving."

Barbara Lingens, Bookloons: With beautifully poetic language, Marly Youmans has written a story both simple and complex... Highly recommended.

Nancy Olson (a Publishers Weekly Bookseller of the Year), Quail Ridge Books
(excerpt Quail Mail #638)
Occasionally I read a new work of fiction that blows me away, and Marly Youmans's A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage (Mercer $24) did just that. Every page in this book resonates with beautifully crafted language, a "universal melody that sings of deep loss and conciliation," and a moving story of a young boy, who after the death of his beloved younger brother, takes to the rails in Depression-era America. I agree with one reviewer that said this is destined to be an American classic.

D. G. Myers, "Meursault goes home again,"  in A Commonplace Blog (12 December 2012) Pip is delivered from existential despair—and the novel is delivered from sentimentality—by the grace of Youmans’s prose, in which tender poetry and jubilant lyricism are carefully separated from realities that are unyielding and often foul. The style affirms what the facts deny; or at least until the very end, when poetry and reality mesh at last. Where Meursault found only indifference in the world, Pip finds radiance, the immanence of glory which St. Paul called, in his letter to the Hebrews, apaugasma. (It is no accident that, in Christianity, home is identified with the Church.) One of the best novels of 2012A Death at the White Camellia Orphange is a moving and powerful novel of the religious experience, the longing and the search for God’s presence in the world, without ever once speaking religion’s dirty name.
Ben Steelman, The Wilmington Star (1 July 2012)
Review - Youmans' novel might be her best yet 
"A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage" continues Youmans' winning ways. It received the Ferrol Sams Award for Southern fiction. It may, in fact, be Youmans' best to date: a picaresque yarn that invites comparisons to Robert Penn Warren…
Although it's only intermittently comic, "White Camellia Orphanage" has parallels to Michael Malone's "Handling Sin." Both books are haunted with Christian imagery and metaphor, and both involve a quest for missing family. (Pip eventually encounters an older sister, who perhaps inevitably is named Lil.)
It is not a novel for speed-readers. Youmans revels in wordplay, metaphor and descriptions as luxuriant and dense as kudzu. She can also be slippery. In her version of Georgia, a lady's hatpin is a wildflower, not an object in a toilette.
Readers willing to exercise, though, will find plenty of reward. Like Warren's fiction, Youmans' book is as much poem as novel, turning ordinary story into something rich and strange.
Read the entire review here.

Jeffery Beam, poet (North Carolina):
Copy of his April 2012 facebook review
She has a way with language which is literary but relaxed, delicate precision coupled with energizing plot--the story always compells the reader along--she writes the kind of book one dreams of--her language beautiful, her sentences delicate but with just the right amount of ornate decoration creating a tension between reality and some other place in which I want to live.

Amanda Cockrell in The Hollins Critic (June 2012) 
   A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage is a historical novel, a mystery novel, a coming of age tale, a picaresque adventure a character study of what we might now call Asperger's Syndrome, all woven into a lyrical text that tells of both love and horror with a quiet, insistent beauty. Youmans gives us a hero in Pip who is as mysterious to others at first as they are to him, and gradually layers back his oddities like onionskin until he connects with, tentatively af first, and badly often, first one person and then another, and comes at the end to a place he fits, where the people fit him.
   A beautiful novel, one to read more than once.

Linda McCullough Moore, writer
Copy of her Books and Culture (May 2012) review here
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... 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. 

Lucy Kempton of Box Elder, writer and artist (France)
Copy of her Box Elder review here (27 May 2012)
It is a stunning book; both cruel and tender, dark and light, but always shot through and stitched with a powerful beauty. Poetry, character and narrative never get in each other’s way, but create a compelling fusion. The rich period detail, from the lives of the rail-riding hobos to the coloured print of a woman’s dress, is riveting, not merely research tacked-on for authenticity, as it can seem to be, but real and known and tangible. Beyond a nodding acquaintance, I’m not steep in the literature of the American south and of the Depression era, so my mind doesn’t reach for parallels and comparisons, which I’m rather glad of, reading the novel for what I think it is, something fresh and remarkable.

Greg Langley, Books editor, The Baton Rouge Advocate (June 2012)
Copy of his The Baton Rouge Advocate review here
Youmans tells Pip's story in her lyric, poetic voice, offering readers vivid characters and unforgettable scenery. The tragedy that begins the story is almost lost in the general misery that was the Great Depression, but the fire of memory burns steadily in Pip and keeps the plot simmering to the end of the book.

Charlotte Innes, poet and reviewer (California)
As someone who has long written reviews professionally (many newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, and other periodicals), and who now begins most novels with a touch of skepticism, I was bowled over from the start by Marly Youmans' book. Her pacing, character sketching, and most of all her language is absolutely remarkable. Youmans' other life as a poet is really on show here. But the story is also moving, and the main character, a boy called Pip, is utterly convincing; in fact, he reminds me of many students I have taught over the years. And all the detail about Pip's travels (and travails!) as a hobo in depression-era America feels completely authentic. A gripping and moving story. June 2012

Rose Kelleher, poet (Maryland)
I hope this book receives the recognition it deserves. I was going to say it was "beautifully written," but that seems superficial somehow, so I'll say it's ~masterfully~ written. Youmans is a poet, true, but the poetry here is used in the service of the story, to bring scenes and characters to life; it's not decoration. I'm amazed at Youman's ability to inhabit another world so fully, as if she'd been reincarnated and were remembering it all firsthand. As others have noted, you want to linger over the descriptions and at the same time move forward to see what happens next. April 2012

Renea Winchester, nonfiction writer (North Carolina)
Her words truly are spellbinding. From the first chapter the reader is drawn toward the story. Youmans possesses the talent of word-weaving that makes me proud to be an author. December 2014

Laura Frankstone, artist (North Carolina)
Marly Youmans' new book 'Death at the White Camellia Orphanage' is an important book. It is, in superficial terms, an American novel, a Southern novel, a bildungsroman, a picaresque novel, and a murder mystery, too... and yet, it doesn't WANT to be categorized, you can tell. It doesn't fit tidy definitions. Pip, the orphan protagonist of the novel, moves from a near- autistic reticence at the beginning of his tale to, after years of living a hobo's life, a kind of jerrybuilt, though workable and sturdy, sense of self at the end. Along the way, he meets characters and situations worthy of Dickens and Lewis Carroll. Youmans' voice is unique, her range wide, her output prodigious. But she has never given us anything like 'Death at the White Camellia Orphanage.' You really ought to read this book, if you care about fiction at all. Even if you're only lukewarm about fiction, do it. Read the book. It has taken up residence in my heart and in my mind. It could do this for you, too. April 2012

Mary Boxley Bullington, artist (Virginia)
The characters are wonderful, but the descriptions of things are so vivid that I would think [Marly Youmans] spent a year or two hoppin' trains, having seizures, and drinking skeeter-water out of horse-troughs. May 15, 2012

Reading with Nathan Ballingrud at Malaprop's, Asheville, NC


Interview at The Cassandra Pages
Part one at Beth Adams (writer, artist, singer, and publisher-editor of Phoenicia Publishing), The Cassandra Pages (setting and research); part two at The Cassandra Pages (uniqueness, advance, challenge)

The Launch Interview in Nine Parts
At UK novelist Clare Dudman's Keeper of the Snails
    --on the orphanage
At poet Dale Favier's Mole 
    --origin stories and the Depression
At artist Laura Murphy Frankstone's Laurelines
At the Artlog of Welsh artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins
    --visualizing characters, fiction and film
At photographer-gardener Vicki Johnson's The Garden
    --time and modes of working
At writer-site, Rebecca Kuder
    --orphans and a link to "The Horse Angel"
At historian Susanna Leberman's Shedding the Inner Dialogue
    --on history and research
At the Canadian artist's site, Marja-Leena Rathje
    --on the name of the orphanage
At poet Hannah Stephenson's The Storialist 
    --the feel of writing in different modes

Click for a larger view

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’s 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.”


  1. Congratulations, Marly!

    Sounds wonderful - and very pertinent for today...excellent cover too!

  2. Hi Clare--

    Thanks. I hope you like it (have to keep up the mutual admiration society, you know!)

  3. I saw your novel on Shelf Awareness. I am southern, and a book blogger. I was trying to contact you to ask if you may be interested in allowing me to review. I blog as a hobby, not for monetary gain. You may visit my blog at I am sorry to contact you this way instead of privately. Let me know if you are interested.

  4. Hi Susan--

    If you want a review copy, you can contact Mary Beth Kosowski at Mercer. That's

    And sure! I am definitely in the more-the-merrier camp when it comes to reviews. I took a peep at your site--looks interesting, and I'll try and take a bigger peep later. (Bit buried in deadlines at the moment.)

  5. Eep, forgot to say that they started inventory on the 19th, so there may be a bit of delay... All hands are on the inventory deck, evidently.

  6. Love Love Love Mary B's colorful comment about the novel.

  7. Yes, I could not resist putting it in! Skeeter-troughs!


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.