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The Wolf Pit    by Marly Youmans order for
Wolf Pit
by Marly Youmans
Order:  USA  Can
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2001 (2001)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Wolf Pit portrays the period of the American Civil War through the eyes of two literate and sympathetic young Virginians, who are on different sides of the moral question behind the struggle. The Confederate soldier has been nicknamed Robin by his fellows, for his habit of singing the nursery rhyme 'Who killed cock robin?' He is a 'boy of daydreams', fighting for his loved ones and not for slavery, which was never practiced by his family. The second protagonist is the mulatto slave girl, Agate, born from the union of her master and his dark half sister, but raised on a distant plantation, where she is (illegally) taught to read, write and love books by her new mistress.

The reader first meets Robin scavenging boots from a battlefield, where he says to a dead comrade 'You were brave, you were gallant and all the things we meant to be ... You were just a boy.' While searching a nearby plantation house for wine for the wounded, Robin finds an old tale of two green children emerging from a wolf pit. The story catches his imagination and he becomes 'a man lugging a leather-bound volume from one end of the world to another, with artillery shells exploding and musketfire racketing around him.' The young brother and sister appear to link Robin to his beloved sister Virginia - 'a thread which could lead him, at least for an hour, out of the maze of trenches and wilderness.'

The novel alternates between Robin's life and that of Agate, whom we first encounter as mute human merchandise being sold by a slave trader in the sweltering Southern heat. Surprisingly, she is able to take control of her own fate, and gradually lays out her history for the reader. The author writes beautifully, for example about the handful of agates in the room where this young mulatto woman is born: 'silky, mineral-pigmented, mysterious. Pebbles from a streambed in fairyland or from a lost world across the sea.' Agate loved to read, but only Mother Goose revealed her 'own country, as cruel and magical as a nursery rhyme.'

Images of wolves run through the story, from the wolfpit children to wolves that Robin sees trapped and slaughtered, and others. Robin is himself captured and ends up in the prison camp at Elmira, called Helmira by its sick and starving inmates. There are lighter moments like a prisoner's comment after being told a tale of Iroquois torture - 'Damn, if that ain't the very beatenest ... it takes a powerful lot to make Helmira look good, don't it?' - but this is indeed a grim experience.

In The Wolf Pit, Youmans paints a non-judgemental picture of a tragic period of history, and shows how two intelligent and imaginative young people live through it, finding their own ways to escape from what is at times an impossible reality. It's a brilliant, haunting novel.

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