Book Review: My Name Is Yip by Paddy Crewe

Paddy Crewe's My Name Is Yip is a revisionist take on the Western novel set in the Georgia gold rush by a debut novelist with an original voice. Read on for Doreen Sheridan's review!

Yip Tolroy was born mute, but even before his speechlessness was discerned, the pale, hairless baby was not thought to be long for this world. His father, already in a state of high emotion at the birth of his first child, went outside to get some air after the doctor expressed his doubts as to Yip’s chances of survival. And never came home. Yip’s mother cursed her missing husband for a fool, and set about the unenviable task of raising her strange son on her own while single-handedly running their small town’s general store.

Yip grew up knowing he was different. In the American South of the 19th century, his kind of difference wasn’t often celebrated, and he was branded an outcast by his community. Even Yip’s own mother considered him a nuisance at best, leaving him to spend long lonely hours under a tree outside the store. Everything changed, though, when a mentor walked into his life and taught him how to read and write, unlocking all the words and communication welling up inside him.

I will say that my life has been something of a trial but such is God’s wish & so I must tell my story here on the page.

 

Indeed I should thank Him for these 3 fingers left me, they might still hold a quill & feel the ink flow free beneath them. I did leave them other 2 where they lay & I have dreams still of the rains feeding them like greentip shoots where in that spot now stands a Hand, the wrist a smooth-barked bole & a Hundred Fingers wagging like branches in the breeze.

Such is the rich imagery that winds through this yarn, as Yip tells the reader about the trials and tribulations of his childhood and young adulthood. After losing his mentor and only friend, Yip finds himself quite alone again but for his mother and her slowly growing, almost grudging respect. In his fifteenth year, however, he’ll make his first real friend and set off on the adventure of a lifetime.

Not that he and this friend meet under the most auspicious of circumstances. After being alerted to an unfriendly conversation on the road outside his house one night, Yip follows a pack of suspicious-looking men into the woods and down to the bank of the nearby river, where he witnesses the illicit beginnings of a money-making scheme. Caught spying, his muteness saves his life when the ringleader realizes Yip’s unlikely to tell anyone what he’s seen. Yip is thus sent home with a resentful chaperone:

His face was blued by shadow but more than once I did catch him looking down at me out the corner of one gray & searching eye. So it is a man will reveal his Nature, he would not hold my gaze but set to muttering recriminations under his sour breath & pulling on the threads of his poxy beard. It appeared the fool was to hold me accountable for his empty pockets & it was his great ploy to convey his grievance through the Powers of Sulking.

Neither Yip nor his escort realizes that this is to be but their first night thrown together, as they become embroiled in thefts, kidnappings and murders, with the Gold Rush descending on their small Georgia town. A headlong flight from Heron’s Creek finds them heading up into Tennessee then towards Virginia, confronting both serious dangers and comic misadventures that hearken occasionally to classics like Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Homer’s The Odyssey. It is the siren song of home, however, that brings with it the greatest tragedy, as Yip comes of age and realizes he must face the perils of adulthood alone.

This is a slow-building novel that saves much of its excitement for the back half before ending rather unexpectedly, I felt. I would have enjoyed reading more about the time between Yip’s adolescence and the mature age at which he’s writing this memoir, especially with the richness of its prose and the comic filips that adorn it. Pacing aside, this is a well-considered look at the American South by an outsider (author Paddy Crewe is British) even if it is a bit of a stretch to categorize this as a Western—revisionist or otherwise. Still, it is an entertaining piece of Americana, with prose at once lush and convincingly down home. 

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