Marja-Leena Rathje
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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!

Marja-Leena | 11/03/2012 | 17 comments
themes: Books


How totally fascinating! A camellia hedge I can picture, but the connection with the Klan, via the "Knights of" leaves me quite amazed. What could be more pure and blameless, or better propaganda for racial purity and white supremacy, than a white camellia, after all? It makes the book's title even more ominous, and shows once again how multi-layered Marly is as an author. Great question, too, Marja-Leena!

Thank you, Marja-Leena!

I constantly give winks of new English books to our library. I have to write that one down.

The author referred by Knights obviously on Birth of the Nation. Someone told me that it's originally 8 hours long. I've seen a 3,5 hour long version, saw it many times as I ran it in our movie club.

KKK thought itself to be somehow aristocratic in nature in the beginning, before real awful atrocities, Strange Fruit.

Beth, yes, I too find the camellia and K connection very strange and disturbing. I'm glad you commented on this for I was running out of room to write more. I couldn't agree more on Marly's widely varied and inventive writing.

Ripsa, I'm glad this is of interest. The historical setting is quite fascinating. The film you mention sounds quite interesting, I should look into it. So your library has many English language books. I've been meaning to blog more about ones I've read the past year but have been lazy. I can think of one especially that would be appeal to Finns...

Back later... I checked out the film - is it the 1915 silent film, about three hours long? It was very controversial for portraying blacks very badly and inaccurately and for favouring the Klan.

It does indeed sound like a fascinating story. I visited the link you posted to Marly Youmans' web site and I've decided the first of hers I'll look for is Val/Orson.

Hi Marja-Leena and Beth and Ripsa and passers-by--

Just showing up now after a day of taxestaxestaxes and now must run help my youngest get going on a project, but I'm very glad to see interested and interesting comments!

Susan, Val/Orson is another one I want too. I spotted a number of Marly's books online, some used.

Marly, taxes and kids do keep one busy!

Oops, missed Susan--

"Val/Orson" used to be hard to get except in the UK, but is now available at least on Amazon and such places. I always wanted to write a book set in trees! (As you can probably tell from the fact that one of my forthcoming books is "The Foliate Head.")

And I should have said that "Val/Orson" has the most splendiferous cover by Clive Hicks-Jenkins (as will "The Foliate Head." We're leaf-friends!)

Marly, Clive's art work on several of your books make for a special blend of the visual and verbal, unique works of art, I'd say.

fascinating, i love all the layers of meaning that build up.

Elisa, yes, that's an interesting point! Like the layering I like to do with my images.

Thanks again, Marja-Leena, and also to your (lovely!) commenters. I like the idea of layers, too: grit that is layered to become a pearl.

Marly, that is interesting. Good to see Finnish books getting translated into English, by Finns yet. Also an entertaining link to why Finnish is a cool language (except the article's umlauts have turned into gibberish).

Have I ever told you about David McDuff's blog Nordic Voices? He does book reviews and some translations of Finnish books and more....

Nordic Voices... Shall take a look!

Fascinating stuff here...i never would have guessed the kkk connection. Thank you so much for asking that question and sharing it here for us to read.

Marly, hope you enjoy it.

zephyr/vicki, thank you for dropping by. I so enjoyed your interview with Marly as well.