A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage by Marly Youmans "is one of those books that grabs you from the beginning," said Nancy Olson, owner of Quail Ridge Books & Music, Raleigh, N.C. "It's powerfully moving."
Published in March by Mercer University Press, the book is also one of Olson's favorite handsells of the year. The book is displayed at the front of the store and has been featured repeatedly in the Quail Mail newsletter, which is sent to 4,000 readers. As of yesterday, the store had sold 62 copies of the $24 book.
Olson also has been reaching out to booksellers at other stores to tell them about the novel. She likened it to Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain for its quiet yet powerful storyline and "beautiful depiction of people." She also talked up A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage to colleagues at BookExpo America earlier this month just as she has been doing with Quail Ridge clientele.
In this tale, Pip Tatnall's younger brother, Otto, is murdered at the White Camellia Orphanage in Georgia, and a disillusioned Pip strikes out on his own. He rides the rails across Depression-era America, running from his past and searching for a future.
Like Pip, Youmans has traveled the U.S. extensively and lived in many locales. After she was born in Aiken, S.C., her parents moved repeatedly, living in Louisiana, Kansas, Delaware and North Carolina. A constant in Youmans's childhood were summers spent at a farm near Lexsy, Ga., where her grandfather sharecropped. She used the house there and its environs as the model for the White Camellia Orphanage.
Youmans does not usually incorporate autobiographical elements into her writing, which includes novels, poetry and young adult tales, but A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage is an exception. Some aspects of the story are loosely drawn from her family's history. Her grandfather's favorite sibling was a half-brother with whom he was raised after the death of the boy's mother, a black neighbor. Their relationship, as well as the mixed-race heritage, is reflected in the storyline through the characters Pip and Otto.
In addition, Youmans's father ran away from home numerous times to ride the rails. Although she had only scant information about her father's past and that of his family, the details she did know sparked her imagination. "They worked together to make a new story," she explained. "It's the gaps that interest a writer. You bridge those gaps with a story."
As an adult, Youmans continued to have a nomadic existence for a time, residing in Virginia, Rhode Island, the Carolinas, and elsewhere, until she put down roots in Cooperstown, N.Y., 13 years ago. "It's the longest I've ever lived anywhere," said Youmans. "I've never lived in a place long enough to see babies grow up and middle aged people become elderly, and all that's very interesting and touching."
Youmans keeps connected to her southern heritage by visiting North Carolina, where her mother resides, several times a year. She has done readings at a range of stores in the state, including Quail Ridge Books & Music, one of her biggest boosters. And the store will continue to boost it.
"Every person I've talked into buying this book came back with glowing reviews," Nancy Olson said. "I'm going to keep selling it until everybody I know reads it." --Shannon McKenna Schmidt