Marly Youmans

"The Wolf Pit"

(Reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer FEB 10, 2003)

"As the cloud of peace and stillness that comes after childbirth descended on my mother, she held me with one arm while the other stretched out on the birthing linens, and Miss Fanny dropped the stones into her palm. "Agate," Miss Fanny said. "The stone is called agate." It was the beauty of the stones that gave me my name, the cloudy and banded richness of the shades in them and the shine of their surfaces. Rock endures, too, until at last it becomes sand and shore."

The Wolf Pit by Marly Youmans at

Two very different people, Agate, a mute ex-slave, and Robin, a confederate soldier fighting for the sovereignty of Virginia, share this book. Their stories are twin threads that wrap around each other, holding each other in place, even though they never actually touch.

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Agate's story begins as she stands on a box near a pub, waiting to see if anyone will buy her. Mr. Cobb doesn't have much hope of getting a decent price for the girl, for her tongue has been cut out. She seems biddable enough so he leaves her, just as a carriage pulls in. Agate feels drawn to the woman who steps out, and takes a gamble. She gestures her over, and gives a note to the woman, begging her to buy her. Agate has the money to take care of it; all the woman has to do is agree. The woman, Amelia, does, and purchases her. Before they reach Amelia's home, she tells Agate that she can leave or stay, whatever she wants, she doesn't believe in slavery. The two women live a quiet existence together, one of mutual respect. She writes her story for Amelia, and in writing that story tells us not only her tale, but also what life was like for people in her position. One of the things that echoed the most for me is this: as a child, she grew up with masters that were kind. They treated everyone well. Agate points out that, while this was certainly nicer than the alternative, there is nothing like freedom. Even a gentle master is still a master.

Robin is Amelia's only surviving child, a Confederate solider who is well versed in the horrors of war. He is sent to forage for wine in an abandoned mansion, for wine and spirits will help the sick. He finds the spirits, and a small, old book. The book tells the tale of a brother and sister who wander into a village, their skin green as grass. They are strange, easily frightened, and their tale comforts Robin as much as it haunts him.

In the first part of this book, through Robin we experience the war up close. It is not a place of glory and courageous heroes, but a place of misery and loss, painted a bright scarlet. Soon he is captured and sent to a prison camp, where his sense of reality shifts. It is not that he goes insane, but that the words in the book, the story of the green children, are so entrenched with his thoughts that they are constant companions. In his mind he sees his own, long dead little sister as the green girl, Mary Wulpet, and it gives him comfort. All Robin has is the story, and in Helmira prison camp, even the bright strange hope of the book may not be enough to save him, for the meat is tainted and not nearly sufficient, and the weather, bitterest winter with no shelter but a tent.

It is a story of contrasts, where things of beauty and terror, odd and normal collect together. Robin is marching toward the first meal at Helmira, and he concentrates on the bright red of chokeberries and the birds, fluffed up against the cold that gather there. Agate visits Amelia's graveyard, nestled in a stand of trees, and sees a bisque doll lovingly dressed in trumpet vine flowers, clematis forming a crown around her head. I found the story very haunting at times, and I myself think of the green children, of Agate and her poems, and a man who is haunted by story.

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Read a chapter excerpt from The Wolf Pit at

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About the Author:

Marly YoumansMarly Youmans is the author of two previous novels, Catherwood and Little Jordan. The Wolf Pit won the 2001 Michael Shaara Award for Excellence in Civil War Fiction. A native and longtime resident of the Carolinas, she now lives in Cooperstown, New York, with her husband and three children. As a child she lived in Gramercy and Baton Rouge, where her father completed a Ph.D. at LSU and her mother worked at the State Library. Educated at Hollins, Brown, and Chapel Hill, she was tenured as an associate professor in the SUNY system before writing full time. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014