white camellias


Marly Youman’s latest book, A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, published by
Mercer University Press, and winner of the Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction, is coming out on March 30th.

From the flap: 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.

Author Ron Rash writes: 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.

I was delighted to be given an opportunity to ask Marly a question about her book:
“White Camellia” is an unusual name for an orphanage -where did that come from?

Marly’s answer:
I’m not entirely sure, since the orphanage seemed to name itself, but there are two main strands of meaning that I see. One is important to the setting, and the other is important to events.

The name is connected in my mind to the sharecropper’s house where I spent time with my paternal grandparents in childhood summers. I pilfered that Georgia house and its fields and outbuildings for my rural, cramped orphanage. The house was unpainted, a box divided into four rooms. Outside, a porch ran across the front. Did I say that Georgia is hot in summer, blisteringly hot? Shielding the porch from the sun and filtering breeze was a gigantic hedge that my grandmother always called “camellia.” Like many things about the orphanage in the novel, the name was better than the reality. The shiny green leaves were starred with small, insignificant white flowers rather than lovely camellia blossoms, but they had a sweet fragrance that hung in the air and increased with heat.

Another element in the name probably came from bumping into references to the K. K. K.’s charitable efforts while noodling around with research. The second, nationwide phase of the Klan (from 1915 through most of World War II) was rather different from either the Reconstruction-era Klan or its later incarnations–not focused on terror as a main goal, the members did some of the work of what we would call a fraternal organization (advancing their own careers in the process, as members of fraternal organizations do), including sponsorship of orphanages for white children.

How does that second-phase K. K. K. business connect with white camellias?

In its Reconstruction-era incarnation, the K. K. K. was associated with another group, The Knights of the White Camellia. Upper-class Southerners were Knights, tilting against the national Republican-party government and, we might say, upholding white knighthood-and-white-ladyhood. (Maybe that’s where all the hoods came from! And here we blamed D. W. Griffith for Klan fashion!) Although that group vanished not long after the Civil War, the names “The Knights of the White Camellia” and “The Knights of the White Kamellia” are still in use today by K. K. K. clans or “klans.”

So “White Camellia Orphanage” suggests a whole complex of things: the Georgia landscape around Lexsy with the rickety, unpainted house and outbuildings where I spent some time each summer; the shining “camellia” hedge that turned out to be no camellia at all; the Knights of the White Camellia; the Invisible Empire of the K. K. K. and their ideas about white rule, white purity, and miscegenation. All those things, though not “spelled out,” exert force on events in A “Death at the White Camellia Orphanage”.

I am really looking forward to reading this compelling and exciting sounding novel! You may pre-order it at your favorite brick-and-mortar independent, chain, or online bookstore (probably just the latter here in Canada at the moment).

I’ve become well acquainted with Marly through her blog of the most magical name The Palace at 2:00 a.m.. Do visit and note what a prolific writer she is with a long list of published books of poetry and many kinds of fiction. Congratulations and best wishes, Marly, may your latest creation fly into numerous homes and hearts!

March 11, 2012 in Books by Marja-Leena