Where is the White Camellia Orphanage?
The name 'White Camellia Orphanage' intrigued me so I asked Marly where it is and who lives there. This is her reply:
The physical space of the White Camellia Orphanage—the shack with its big porch shielded by a glossy green hedge, the rickety outbuildings, the flimsy structure over the well, the fields of cotton and tobacco—is directly based on the 40-acre farm where my paternal grandparents were sharecroppers and where my father (later to be a teenage tail gunner in World War II and then a student and eventually a Professor of Analytical Chemistry) lived for most of his childhood. The farm is now owned by some great agri-business. The last time I saw it, the house had been burned by vandals, and only one outbuilding remained, close to a stand of Chinese tallow trees. The farm was “in Lexsy,” but Lexsy, like so many little places of the past, has vanished. Now the nearest town would be Swainsboro, Georgia. The farm was about a 20-mile drive from my mother’s family home in Collins, and about 90 miles from Savannah, where I often visited my aunt, a widow.
When the story begins, Pip and his little brother Otto have lived there for a year, along with a group of children (some orphans, some with a parent unable to care for them), under the care of the Hooks family—that is, Mr. Jimmie and Miss Versie. The children go to school (barring those times when workers are needed in greater numbers) and labor in the fields and play. The orphanage appears more like a foster home today—one without enough income and a few too many children.
A quote from the book gives a further strong impression of place:
Pip Tattnal woke in the dense warmth of an Emanuel County summer at 4:17 a.m., a fact that he would learn much later when he became acquainted with clocks. For the rest of his life he would jerk from sleep at that very instant, his body refusing to sleep through the stroke of darkness. He did not open his eyes. He did not need to open his eyes. He knew where he was—the same place he had been for almost a year. He was on the farm sharecropped by the Hooks family, although the land was always called by another man’s name as if to remind Mr. Jimmie and Miss Versie that they owned not much more than debt and the clothes on their backs plus a spare change for Sunday, a clutter of ironware and dishes, and a few clanking enamel chamber pots. For the last several years it also had been known as The White Camellia Orphanage or The Cottage because of the doings of Mr. Sam Truetlen, owner of a nearby cotton gin and the far-off Gen’l Notions Store, who had traveled all the way to New Orleans and on to Dallas once upon a time, and there, on the outer edge of the known world, had toured a cottage-style orphanage intended for destitute white children and run by the Klan. Being a man prone to fits of “projecting,” he later backed his own orphanage, though most of the children still claimed at least one parent on some played-out, ramshackle farm. Wherever his kind had sunk so desperate and low as to scoop up the red clay to eat, Mr. Sam would arrive on muleback and plod away with one or more children riding pillion, some to stay at The Cottage for a month, some longer. It got so that people for miles around could recognize Daisy Belle, the white mule, and Goshen, the soot-gray one. As for the name of the orphanage, that was the influence of the Klan, with its Knights and Dragon, its Cyclops and Nighthawk and Kamellia—and Mr. Sam’s tip of the hat to the city of Dallas. So that was where Pip had been lodged for almost a year, in The White Camellia.
On reading that I was particularly struck by the fragment 'his kind had sunk so desperate and low as to scoop up the red clay to eat' having just read about a similar practice in China during the Great Famine. The idea of eating mud, mentioned so skilfully in passing, gives the piece much power and makes me more anxious than ever to read the rest of the book. I am not surprised it won the Ferrol Sams Award for 'best book that speaks to the human condition in a Southern context'.
A longer sample is here.
Marly has given other interviews at Dale Favier's Mole, the Artlog of Clive Hicks-Jenkins, Vicki Johnson's The Garden, Susanna Leberman's blog Shedding the Inner Dialogue, and Hannah Stephenson's The Storialist, and at Rebecca Kuder and Marja-Leena Rathje's blogs. Each of them revealing very interesting facets of Marly and her writing process.