The Wolf Pit

Separation haunts Marly Youmans' Civil War novel The Wolf Pit. Most suspenseful is the separation of the two main characters, a young Confederate soldier nicknamed Cock Robin, and Agate, a mixed-race slave. Their lives distantly touch, and they represent what is most precious of the pre-war South. Robin is naturally noble, a dreamer who survives the horrors of war through his imagination, which becomes focused on an emblematic medieval legend of two lost, fey children told in a book he finds in a ruined mansion. Agate grows up in a kindly house, is taught to read, and turns into a gifted writer--a happy childhood for a slave, until her mother is sold and she is forced to serve a murderous slave owner. He cuts out her tongue because she is literate.

The reader yearns for these two likable, promising youths to meet somehow, and it seems possible when Agate escapes and wins her freedom through the chance help of Robin's mother. Robin, however, is captured and locked up in a Northern prisoner of war camp.

Youmans writes with lyric intensity. Her descriptions--whether of battles, houses, quilts, landscape, graves, privation, or torture--are so lovingly and exquisitely rendered as to nearly overwhelm the narrative. The tone is ominous, even in the rare comic passages, but hope for the very admirable protagonists impels the reader onward. The fate of Agate and Robin, and their families, suggests that the South lost much that was precious, along with what was vicious, after that great national separation, the Civil War. But, the novel's ending suggests, it also gained a new, vital citizenry.