Marly Youmans' evocative second novel calls forth an intensely personal Civil War through the parallel experiences of a young Confederate soldier and a mulatto slave girl. The Wolf Pit hums a mesmerizing lament for lost innocence through its musical descriptions of battle, of the degradations of slave life, of the claustrophobic horror of the infamous Elmira prison camp. Yet the author also twines a tentative descant of wonder and hope throughout the pain of individual lives affected by slavery and war. That Youmans can achieve such a range of emotion without dipping into sentamentality is a wonder, and therein lies the achievement of this novel.
Nicknamed "Robin" by his brothers-in-arms (he has a penchant for singing the macabre lullaby "Who Killed Cock Robin" on the march into battle), a young Confederate soldier maintains his equilibrium by focussing always on his love for three women -- his mother, his fiance, and especially his young sister. He discovers a book inside an abandoned plantation house, and its millennium-old legend of two green-skinned children discovered in a wolf pit in England offers Robin yet another distraction. The bloodier the battles become, the more compatriots he loses, the further Robin becomes engrossed in the story. When a foraging mission leads to capture and internment in the starkly horrific Elmira prison camp in New York, his fixation on the green children crowds almost everything else from his mind.
Agate Freebody is a mulatto slave girl, a young woman whose early experiences in slavery were not altogether unkind. Loaned out before birth by her owner (who happens to have sired her) to his brother, Agate becomes a companion to her cousin by birth, her better by circumstance. Beside young Thomie, she learns to read and to write -- her owner's brother even has a book of her essays published. Raised in the plantation household, Agate grows farther and farther from her own mother, whom she often sees as uneducated and superstitious. But when an outbreak of smallpox brings down the plantation's white family, Agate and the other slaves must return to the decadent and conniving Young Master. When he discovers the extent of her literacy, he fears the power of her knowledge and impetuously cuts out her tongue. The tides of war eventually wash her up at the feet of an extraordinary woman who helps Agate purchase herself out of bondage. This grieving woman and the mute former slave form a bond of mutual respect that will help each struggle out of the pits dug by their fortunes.
What binds the stories of Robin and Agate is the presence of an exceptional woman, one who has lost nearly everything she treasures but who somehow continues to live. Wending like flutesong throughout matter-of-fact yet lyrical accounts of everyday life as soldier and slave is the haunting legend of two children lost in a country not their own. Their strangeness and wildness raise this novel from an excellent individualized recounting of America's bloodiest war to transcendence. The Wolf Pit hold readers by the heart from beginning to end.