The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is the story of twelve year old Jody Baxter, who lives with his family in a backwoods area of Florida known as “the scrub” in the years after the Civil War. His parents, Ezra (nicknamed Penny because of his small stature) and Ory, have previously lost six children in infancy. This and the fact that he had a hard upbringing himself makes Penny want to let Jody be a child for as long as he can and makes him even more dear. But Ory, though not totally lacking in affection, is somewhat detached from Jody, and has hardened somewhat after all the losses and hardscrabble existence. She says, “Seems like bein’ hard is the only way I kin stand it.”
Though “friendliness and mutual help in time of trouble” was more available in towns, Penny wanted the peace of the scrub:
He had perhaps been bruised too often. The peace of the vast aloof scrub had drawn him with the beneficence of its silence. Something in him was raw and tender. The touch of men was hurtful upon it, but the touch of the pines was healing. Making a living came harder there, distances were troublesome in the buying of supplies and the marketing of crops. But the clearing was peculiarly his own. The wild animals seemed less predatory to him than people he had known. The forays of bear and wolf and wild-cat and panther on stock were understandable, which was more than he could say of human cruelties.
Jody begins as a good-hearted but immature boy, off rambling in the forest when he should be hoeing the corn. He wants a pet, but his Ma is against it: it’s hard enough to keep the family fed. Although Penny wants Jody to be carefree as long as possible, he takes Jody on various forays like hunting, trading, planting, etc., teaching him and imparting wisdom along the way. When Penny wants to take Jody trading with their nearest neighbors (four miles away), the rowdy Forresters, he and Ma argue:
“Jody has got to mix with men and learn the ways o’ men,” Penny said.
“The Forresters’ is a fine place to begin. Do he learn from them, he’ll learn to have a heart as black as midnight.”
“He might learn from them, not to.”
The Baxters face perils from bears, particularly a smart, sneaky one nicknamed Ol’ Slewfoot because he’s missing a toe, panthers, wolves, catastrophic weather, and snakes, but there are also visits with friends and Christmas parties and fun times as well.
At one point when a doe is killed during an emergency, Jody discovers she had a fawn. When he pleads with Penny to take it home since they were responsible for its mother’s death, Penny relents. Jody and the fawn, named Flag by a friend, become fast friends. But of course, as Flag gets older, he becomes harder to handle and a menace to the family’s crops.
The title would suggest the story is about the fawn, as it starts becoming a problem when it becomes a yearling. But several times in the book Jody is called a yearling, and the book is something of a coming of age story. Though the main storyline is about his transformation from a boy to a responsible youth, there are so many facets to the book: Penny’s understanding of and relationship with Jody, his wisdom and decency, how different people respond to the trials of life, how people existed in such a place and time. There is a wealth of knowledge about animal ways and how all their parts were used (who knew panther oil was good for rheumatism?)
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings won a Pulitzer prize in 1939 for this book, deservedly so, and it’s the work she is most known for. As I was reading I mused that she had to be from this area, because her knowledge flowed so naturally it couldn’t have come just from research into it, and I was was delighted to find I was right: I found this interesting article about the area where Rawlings lived in central Florida and where the movie based on the book was filmed. According to Wikipedia, her editor rejected several things she sent him and told her to “write about what she knew from her own life”; that advice led to The Yearling.
It has to be masterful writing that can include accented dialogue along with beautiful prose, almost poetic in places. Here are a few favorite spots:
He edged closer to his father’s bones and sinews. Penny slipped an arm around him and he lay close against the lank thigh. His father was the core of safety. His father swam the swift creek to fetch back his wounded dog. The clearing was safe, and his father fought for it, and for his own. A sense of snugness came over him and he dropped asleep (Chapter 4).
She clasped two fingers over her nose in a gesture of malodorous disgust (Chapter 11).
[After Jody threw a potato at the girl above], “Well, son, you cain’t go thru life chunkin’ things at all the ugly women you meet” (Chapter 11).
Grandma Hutto’s flower garden was a bright patchwork quilt thrown down inside the pickets (Chapter 11).
She drew gallantry from men as the sun drew water. Her pertness enchanted them. Young men went away from her with a feeling of bravado. Old men were enslaved by her silver curls. Something about her was forever female and made all men virile (Chapter 11).
A tenderness filled Jody that was half pain, half sweetness. In his agony, his father was concerned for him (Chapter 14).
At the house, Ma Baxter received the news stolidly. She had shed her tears and wailed her laments when the crops were ruined. As the going of too many of her children had wrung her dry of feeling, now the passing of the game was only another unprotested incident (Chapter 21).
“You got to learn takin’ keer o’ rations comes first of all–first after gittin’ ’em” (Chapter 22).
Ma Baxter rocked complacently. They were all pleased whenever she made a joke. Her good nature made the same difference in the house as the hearth-fire had made in the chill of the evening (Chapter 23).
Jody chewed on his licorice stick. The rich black juice filled his mouth and the talk filled another hunger, back of his palate, that was seldom satisfied (Chapter 25).
“You’ve seed how things goes in the world o’ men. You’ve knowed men to be low-down and mean. You’ve seed ol’ Death at his tricks. You’ve messed around with ol’ Starvation. Ever’ man wants life to be a fine thing, and a easy. ‘Tis fine, boy, powerful fine, but ’tain’t easy. Life knocks a man down and he gits up and it knocks him down agin. I’ve been uneasy all my life….I’ve wanted life to be easy for you. Easier’n ’twas for me. A man’s heart aches, seein’ his young uns face the world. Knowin’ they got to git their guts tore out, the way his was tore. I wanted to spare you, long as I could. I wanted you to frolic with your yearlin’. I knowed the lonesomeness he eased for you. But ever’ man’s lonesome. What’s he to do then? What’s he to do when he gits knocked down? Why, take it for his share and go on” (Chapter 33).
I think that last quote is one that resonated with me the most. We want to shield our children from hard things: even just telling them “No” when they’re toddlers can break our hearts. But we can’t. Hard times will come, and we hope that they’ll be resilient and keep hope and faith alive and let the hard times mature them without hardening them.
I had seen the film with Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman years ago and loved it and wanted to read the book someday, but just didn’t think of it when making reading plans for the year. When I finally thought about it a few weeks ago, I almost waited to include as a classics read for next year, but then decided I didn’t want to wait. And I am so glad I went ahead. I love this book. I’d like to see the movie again now as well.
For those who would want to know about objectionable elements, there is a smattering of “hells” and “damns” (usually from the Forresters), mentions of whiskey (also usually by the Forresters and sometimes the doctor, who took to drink after his wife died). There is an odd scene when Jody is spending the night with the Forresters, and they wake up in the night due to a commotion outside. He’s shocked to find that they are all naked, and then instead of going back to bed, they start playing music – still naked. I guess that’s to show just how untamed and unconventional they are. Because of these things I don’t think it is exactly a children’s book (at least not without some editing and/or discussions): young adults, maybe. But I enjoyed it as an adult while not condoning those aspects.
The book is not from a Christian standpoint, but as a Christian I like to see what aspects of faith and perceptions of God are in a story. There was an odd exchange about something the doctor said:
Buck said, “That Doc, he’d crack him a joke right in the Lord’s face.”
Penny said, “That’s why he’s a good doctor.”
“Well, he gits to fool the Lord now and agin.”
The one character depicted as a Christian, Penny’s father, was characterized unfortunately as “stern as the Old Testament God.” (It’s a common misconception that God in the Old Testament is aloof and stern but Jesus is kind and compassionate. But they are one, and there are many references to God’s love, mercy and compassion in the OT and His sternness in the NT.) There is a general respect for God’s providence and an occasional lament at what is seen as His hardness, but not really a closeness to Him. Penny’s prayer at a crippled boy’s burying are particularly sweet. I wish the characters could have known that “The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27) and “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:1).
As I was poking around looking at reviews and articles about The Yearling after I finished it, I discovered this song by Andrew Peterson called “The Ballad of Jody Baxter” based on the book (which made me teary). You can find the text online at Project Gutenberg Australia which includes some beautiful illustrations by N. C. Wyeth. I enjoyed listening to the audiobook very ably narrated by Tom Stechschulte and reread some passages online.
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)