The Wolf Pit : A Novel
By Marly Youmans
Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
October 2001; 0-374-29195-0; 352 pages

February 2003; 0-156-02714-3; in paperback

Read Book Synopsis

Read Excerpt

The Wolf Pit by Marly YoumansO N E 

The Valley of Death

Wherein is met one Robin, a soldier 
Crossing a field of blood. 

The stillness and soundlessness that comes after great strife settled on the valley, its birds routed from the sky and every insect noise scorched and consumed by fire. Caissons and wagons had been hauled away and the last wounded man carried off to die elsewhere: the landscape was now well held by the dead and by those whose lives were at such low ebb that breath was no longer discernible to the able-bodied men and boys who had searched the field for missing friends. Strange to see the contortions, expressive of action and life, that gripped the dead. Here one looked sightlessly after the fled birds, his arms thrown back, rifle cast from his hands. There another, his leg blown away, shouted without breath, without sound. They littered the earth, these warriors, scattered from one end to the other of what once had been a meadow. Windless, becalmed, the valley lay like the hold of a ship invaded by plague, its passengers having been shaken by fever, then let drop. Even the stream that curled through the scene kept an unnatural silence. The waters moved sluggishly, dragging their load of clay and blood. A half-dozen trees, their boles gnawed and at last bitten through by the pounding of minie ball, grapeshot, and cannonball, were flung down on the ground, one man or sometimes more crushed beneath. Either gunfire or the feet of soldiers had plowed up the clay -- a light red in color, as if the earth in that place might be another and larger body bloodied in the attack. It was hard to tell the season, because grasses and flowers and leaves had been burned to ash. Likewise, the time of day was uncertain, for the sky seemed dense and lowering, the color of smoke. 

From a hedgebreak of scrub cedar, two young men emerged. The one in front stalked along with a dirty wool blanket over his shoulders, looking something like a crow, his head bent to scan the faces of the dead. 

"Wait," the second called, "would you just wait a damn minute?" He hobbled along in boots that appeared new and stiff, at odds with the rest of his stained and muddy uniform. 


His companion glanced at him briefly, then resumed his search. 

"A dadburn damn minute, I said," the other cried out. 

The first cocked his head at the uncertain sky. 

"I want to get shut of this job before it's night. You get the boots, Jemmy Butts, and keep a sharp lookout for our boys. We've got three unaccounted for from the company." As he shifted the blanket higher on his shoulders, the young man more than ever resembled a winged creature. 

"What'd the lieutenant tell you to do?" Jemmy Butts began pulling off one of his boots. 

"You'll get your socks all over in mud and blood if you do that," the first man cautioned. "The ground's just like a bathing sponge." 

Jemmy Butts hopped on one foot, steadied himself by putting one toe to the ground, then tugged the boot back on. 

"Son of a bitch," he said. "Them's the worst boots for blisters a man ever wore." 

"Ah, such bitterness, Jemmy Butts! Trouble deaf heaven with bootless cries, will you?" The first man laughed, then stopped abruptly. "The boots deserve it, every bit! I can think of seven men that made trial of those boots. Me, Nash, Harry Arnold, Wyche, that boy with the eyes so crossed nobody could tell what he was aiming at, and George Nicholas. The last three dead." He watched Jemmy Butts adjust the heel. 

"He was a Will, that fellow with the eyes." Jemmy Butts took a half step, his heel raised. "Don't care whose confounded boots these are, I'm going to drown them in the creek next chance I get."

"Regimental boots, Jemmy Butts. Nothing like a regimental tradition." 

Jemmy Butts snorted. "Them's just a pair Toombs's mother sent him. We'd be doing him and the regiment a damn favor to throw them away." He wiped his hands on his jacket, leaving streaks of clay. 

"Get as many decent boots as possible. Heap them in a pile, and I'll help carry them if I can. If not, I've got a couple of sacks, and you can drag them if you have to. Maybe the grave-digging detail will be back out soon." The young man nodded toward a house in the distance. "I'm off, then." 

Jemmy Butts staggered sideways. "Robin, what are you meant to do? You're not leaving me to swipe dead men's boots?" 

The other soldier half turned. 

"I should be over there already," he said, "scratching up wines for the wounded. That's my job. You couldn't make it, not in those boots. Get yourself a good pair." 

"But Robin," Jemmy Butts began. 

The soldier waved without turning around, stepping over bodies, still glancing down. Queer, he thought, how different they seem when dead. The same features, the same hair and eyes and skin but with the pulse stilled, so unfamiliar. As if what one really knew of them had flown. Robin by this time had seen the terrible sights that are always the same, always new in war: the boy with his face stove and lacerated by minie balls; the man without arms or without legs, or with only one arm and one leg; the soldier who rained down in pieces after an explosion; corpses swollen in the heat. Yet the mindlessness of this valley of the dead felt gloomy and oppressive to him, and Robin thought that even the cawing of a plundering bird or the groan of a wounded soldier would not come amiss; suddenly he whirled around and stared, watching as Jemmy Butts yanked at the boot on a soldier's rigid, resistant leg. At the crest of the hill, now in shadow, he could see the diggers seeping out from the darkness of the hedgebreaks. It was a slow go, this crossing of the valley. 

Once he stopped to kneel beside a dead soldier, remembering when he had last seen him in the smoke and noise, striking downward with his bayonet. 

"You were brave, you were gallant and all the things we meant to be, Harry Arnold," he said aloud. "You fought the despoilers. You were a good friend. You could curse a blue streak. You were just a boy." Robin rocked on his haunches, remembering how Harry Arnold had hugged his mother good-bye, crying and laughing at once because she would not let him go to war without chest-flannels and her jellies made from wild plums. Sometimes it seemed to Robin that there was nothing but the camps and the marching and the fighting. Other times it seemed that outside the tents and the battles there was an enormous land barren of all but women and children. Out there the children were weeping and the young women and their mothers were mourning, wailing, without stop, always and always sending up a cry to heaven. 

Pulling out a pocket-book, Robin tore out a page and on it wrote Harry Arnold's name and company and regiment with the stub of a pencil. Then he made a slit and buttoned the sheet onto the jacket, crimping the paper close to the button's shank. Inside the dead boy's own memorandum book Robin stored a half-written letter and some papers, along with a blond curl and a daguerreotype case found in the pocket over his heart. All these, along with a Testament, he placed on top of a sheet of brown paper he had brought for just such a purpose, folded in his jacket. Last he chopped a lock from the boy's dark hair, knotting it with a thread jerked from his sleeve. He wrapped the items hurriedly, marking the package with Arnold's name and the address from the memorandum book, and shoved them into his pocket. 

As he came closer to the plantation house, Robin jumped over pools and lagoons of clay- and blood-colored water, splattering the dead soldiers. Not a dying man lifted a single finger. It seemed every soldier on the field and on the lawn before the house was long dead. It was uncanny to Robin, who often helped carry the wounded from the field, and was accustomed to finding men alive but helpless long after the last cry for aid had been answered. 

The structure which a few hundred yards back seemed small, despite its ranked columns, began to loom before him. He was glad to see a glimmer of sun behind the long smudge of the sky, for he did not like the thought of searching the house in half darkness, with no lamps lit in the rooms. It was one of the most imposing dwellings he had seen in the course of many battles and many marches, in part because it was neither wood nor brick but built from blocks of stone, smoothed and fitted tightly together. Like a manse in England, he imagined, despite a surface not yet made venerable by age and history. As he came closer Robin saw a fault line behind the columns, fissuring the wall from top to bottom. Still, he thought it safe to venture, for the plantation house looked to him as monumental and eternal as the pyramids in The Israelites Enslaved, an engraving which hung in his mother's parlor. Glancing down, as he did habitually, checking the faces of the dead, he was struck by a city of reflections in the pools of blood -- for each one gave back an image of house and queue of columns. What would the possessors of such a place say, were they to see those bloody pictures in the portrait gallery of earth? 

Copyright 2001 Marly Youmans
Reprinted with permission.

(back to top)


A powerful yet intimate novel of the Civil War on the home and battle fronts, The Wolf Pit offers a gripping portrait of two young Virginians forever altered by the violence and. uncertainty of national unrest. 

Robin, a young Confederate soldier, battles from a valley of blood to a burning wilderness to labyrinthine trenches. He clings -- despite the slaughter of friends and the shattering of illusions -- to what gives him strength, to the beautiful and the uncanny: psalms, pictures of loved ones, and an old tale about a pair of mysterious, green-hued children found in a wolf pit. These he carries with him inside the very palisades of hell, the Elmira prison camp.

Agate, the daughter of a hired-out slave, embraces the forbidden teachings of her mistress, Miss Fanny. But the images she has fashioned for herself shatter when she deeply offends her owner, Young Master, who carries out a swift and cruel punishment. At the Williams Home Place, Agate learns the meaning of her mother's cautionary tales as she struggles to survive loss and degradation and to pit knowledge and truth against evil. 

By turns eloquent and harrowing, The Wolf Pit explores the will to endure in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, and the personal toils exacted during this chaotic period in U.S. history. 

(back to top)


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.

Buy The Wolf Pit at

Read Review

Home | All Chapters Excerpts | Next