1939: The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

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From the Dust Jacket:

The scene of Mrs. Rawling’s new novel is inland Florida, the wild and beautiful “hammock” country which she first made known to American readers in South Moon Under. In the hammock country live a breed of Americans that it is hard to surpass. Proud, self-reliant, industrious, forever struggling against the encroachments of the tropical forest and the raids of wild beasts, their lives are hard, but full of the experiences that make living worth while.

It is with the Baxters, one of these hammock-country families, that The Yearling is concerned. One year of their lives is spanned in the book­ – a year brim full of event and incident, of drama, conflict, tragedy, humor and beauty. The Baxters are three – Penny Baxter, the father, a little man, but a mighty hunter; his stout, hard-working wife; and twelve-year-old Jody, “the yearling,” around whom the story centers. But there is a fourth – another yearling – who plays quite as poignant a part in the story as the humans – “Flag,” Jody’s pet fawn, taken from the side of its dead mother in one of the many unforgettable scenes in the book.

There are other vivid characters in the story – the Forresters, an unruly, bearded, lawless tribe; wise and winning Grandma Hutto; old Slewfoot, the wily bear, whose pursuit and death take on the high courage and daring of the quest for some legendary monster – but the book belongs to the Baxters, and to Jody.

It is a story that every one will enjoy – for its people are altogether human and lovable. And beyond the breathless beauty of its physical background and the stirring scenes in which the tale abounds there is a spiritual meaning which gives the whole narrative a special quality and makes reading it a unique experience.

My Thoughts:

The Yearling falls into the category of Pulitzer Prize winning books that I call the “poor, down on their luck family story,” which includes previous novels Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin (1929), Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller (1934), Now in November by Josephine Johnson, and the book that won the Pulitzer Prize the next year in 1940, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Like the other novels in this list, The Yearling is very much the story of a specific region and the way of life in that region, which in this case is Florida. But the Florida of The Yearling is a much different place than what we think of it today, over 75 years later. It is still a wild land, occupied by wolves and bears, where the farmers must fight back to keep their small patches of land cultivated and free from predators, must struggle to keep their families fed.

The Yearling was originally intended for younger audiences, but was selected for the Book of the Month Club and spent twenty-three weeks as the number one bestseller in the country, and even though it is today often classified as a novel for young adults (the copy I checked out from the library was shelved in the “Youth” section), it has not excluded adults from reading it in the past, and shouldn’t dissuade them from reading in the future. The Yearling provides an interesting case from the past in light of some of the more recent debates on whether or not young adult fiction is actually literature. In fact, Rawlings’ editor, Maxwell Perkins, worked with F. Scott Fitzgerald and helped shape several aspects of The Great Gatsby, as well as working with Ernest Hemingway to publish some of his first novels, including The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms. While this does not speak for every novel marketed toward young adults or teenagers, finding The Yearling in the youth section should not cause you to immediately pass on this book.

Jody Baxter is a twelve year old only child, and as the book opens, still has the innocence of youth. He would rather sneak away from his chores to go play down by the river, and is always begging his mother to let him keep an animal as a pet, just like his friend Fodder-wing, who tames and keeps a variety of wild animals. Over the course of the next year, however, as Jody is faced with a variety of disasters and incidents, he matures and grows up and begins to learn what it means to become an adult.

Many of the landscapes and characters and mannerisms in the book are drawn from Rawlings own experiences and neighbors. At age 36 Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her husband moved to a farm in rural Florida, and within a few years, at the recommendation of her editor Maxwell Perkins, she began writing about some of her experiences in rural Florida. By the time she wrote The Yearling, her most successful novel, she had lived in Florida for a decade, and that experience is clear in her descriptions throughout the novel. Her knowledge of local plants and customs and recipes come out in subtle, natural ways throughout the novel. There is an ease and familiarity with the area that invites the reader into that life and introduces them to it without being requiring the reader to have any knowledge of the area. The language and style are beautiful and evoke clear and captivating images. She draws you in as the reader paints a landscape and a way of life with gorgeous diction.

While it does at times seem that The Yearling falls into the same trap that Lamb in His Bosom and Now in November fall into, in which disaster follows disaster, there are a number of positive and happy moments contributing toward Jody’s growth and maturity. I thought that having a young fawn growing into a yearling over the same time that Jody himself grows up and matures was a an interesting, if obvious parallel, but Rawlings seems to go out of her way to enforce the comparison, calling Jody a yearling, and having Jody’s father say or think more than once that Jody was growing up as quickly as the fawn. And while the conclusion of the novel seemed inevitable, the journey along the way, with bear hunts and floods and fights and fires, all the moments that work together to build and grow and change Jody over the course of the year work together to illuminate a region and a way of life now almost, if not completely non-existent, while still connecting in a universal way with the joys and sorrows of growing up.

Favorite passage:

He went to bed in a fever and could not sleep. A mark was on him from the day’s delight, so that all his life, when April was a thin green and the flavor of rain was on his tongue, an old wound would throb and a nostalgia would fill him for something he could not quite remember.

Why you should read it:

An interesting and well-crafted novel about life and growing up in a region that is obviously both familiar and loved by the author, with beautiful imagery. Despite the young adult themes and original audience, this is a book that can appeal to a much wider audience.

Currently reading: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

 

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