A DEATH AT THE WHITE CAMELLIA ORPHANAGE
By Marly Youmans
Mercer University Press, $24
Life is easy for no one at a decrepit orphanage in hardscrabble south Georgia during the Depression. For a dreamy, strange child like Pip Tattnal, who suffers migraine headaches, can’t stand the smell of gardenias, tells tales of the English Civil War and is possibly autistic (“Had he been born some seventy years later, even an orphan boy with oddities of memory and behavior might have been diagnosed and his syndrome named.”), life at the rundown cotton farm that passes for a charitable institution is nearly unbearable. Nearly.
What keeps Pip going is the deep but unexpressed affection he feels for his half brother, Otto. So he is unable to stay in bed on a humid Georgia morning when he awakens in the predawn and finds his brother missing from the bed they share in the smelly, dirty dormitory. Pip, just 10 years old, wanders out into the dark looking for Otto. He does find him.
“It was the body of a boy, perhaps a year younger than Pip, arms lashed against the topmost stand of barbed wire, legs bent and tied to a post. Although his cotton underwear flapped in a hot breath of wind, he was otherwise quite still. His head had fallen over to one side as if his neck might be broken. A strand of barbed wire haloed the hair, arcing across the brow, and a few jewel-like drops of deep red beaded the skin.”
His brother had been murdered. There is a cursory investigation, and then Otto’s body is take away, and Pip is left alone at the White Camellia Orphanage — “As for the name of the orphanage, that was the influence of the Klan, with its Knights and Dragons, its Cyclops and Nighthawks and Kamellia …” The two boys were the sons of an old, old man named Gilead Tattnall, a bridge builder and surveyor who traveled all over Georgia and the Carolinas who left many children — legitimate and otherwise. Pip’s mother was his lawful wife, although she was Tattnal’s second wife, having outlived his first wife who was born during the Civil War when Gilead was already grown. After she died, Gilead married Pip’s mother. “Gilead was gray when he married Georgianna Jo, but he still had a lot of nature left in him. That’s what folks said.”
He had enough nature to father even more children, including the one who died at birth and took Georgianna Jo with it. After that, Gilead kept the children until he died a few years later, leaving them without support.
“It was a bad year for Gilead Tattnal’s twenty-four known offspring, and no doubt for a certain number of his unidentified children as well.”
Pip and Otto, refusing to be separated, are taken to the White Camellia Orphanage where they become virtual serfs. Pip isn’t really aware that his half brother is half black until after the murdered child is buried outside the white section of the Tattnal cemetery. Forlorn, abused and odd to the core, Pip aspires to nothing less than escape after Otto’s death. So, at the tender age of 11, he hops a train and meets a friendly gang of hoboes, both male and female, who take him into their band and teach him the ropes, or in this case, the rails. He eventually settles in Savannah, Ga., for a while with an odd group of social outcasts who coalesce into something resembling family. He even goes to school where he proves himself quite intelligent. Despite his good treatment in Savannah, Pip can’t get the song of the rails out of his head, and he is off again at age 14, headed out to the wide open spaces.
Pip travels and works harvesting crops, as a laborer, never alighting in one spot for long. There are hard lessons, malicious railroad detectives, fights, long solitary hours inside or atop boxcars that roll through the West, the East, the North, the Midwest and the South. He settles a while with a farmer in New York State. He finds a place with workers housed in the ruin of a burned house deep in a glade of enormous eucalyptus trees in California. “He walked on the aromatic debris, looking up at the chinks of moon through the canopy and pausing to touch the boles. He had never seen anything like the grove of eucalyptus with the moonlight showering down.”
Mostly Pip is alone, but sometimes he is not. There are women. This is not a tale of unrequited love, however, but one of unavenged wrong. Despite the siren call of the train whistle, the lure of companionship and smell of the wind across the fields, there is another compulsion that stays with Pip all through his rambles: the need to know what really happened to Otto.
As World War II is just taking root, he heads back to Georgia. Pip is not yet out of his teens, young and beautiful and already a thousand years old.
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.