I was never much of a reader. My parents weren’t highly educated. Mom made it to eighth grade and Dad through high school, and then they met, had six kids and no money. Reading was low on their priority list. It doesn’t explain my lack of reading completely though, because one of my sisters reads like a madwoman. I guess I never had much interest, plus, I’m a slow and deliberate reader and can’t seem to sit for long periods at a time What I did read as an adolescent was teen romance magazines. Oh, the drama, the longing, the love … it was all I needed - on a single page. But, whole books? Unlikely. And the classics? Never.
The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, was my assigned precursor for what is now termed Young Adult Literature and it took me three solid days - all of Labor Day weekend minus a movie here and a breakfast there - to get through it. Difficult? yes, but worth it. The Yearling was a long, luxurious meander through a year in the backwoods of Florida in the early 1900’s. Thematically a coming-of-age book, Ms. Rawlings skillfully intertwined setting and character development to give us a glimpse into the rough and laborious entanglement between the natural world and the Baxter family. Respectful encounters as well as intense struggles with the earth and its animals allowed the reader an intimate view of the rambunctious, animal-loving protagonist, Jody, and his kind-hearted (what we would now call) naturalist father, Penny.
There wasn’t an overarching plot per se, and so, for me at least, there was not a strong drive to read on for most of the book. It was more like a series of plots, popcorn plots, little arcs of drama as Jody and Penny would go on a hunt for large or small game, or deal with severe weather or an animal intruder, or even just go off together to haul water for the family. Conflicts came up within his family, with other families- like the family of brutes nearby who lacked the spirit and knowledge of Penny, or within Jody himself as he wrestled with his own conscience, a common theme in young adult literature. But, these issues were usually resolved within a page or two.
However, these experiences built on one another to form a foundation for a final, more intense, set of conflicts/plot found in the last few chapters. It was here that the drive to read on picked up. One minor plot was a feud between two of Jody’s older friends over, naturally, a girl. Jody had to repeatedly decide with whom to place his allegiance until one started the other's house afire. This brought both the best and the worst in human nature into clear focus for Jody. The major plot (which was a little long in coming, in my opinion) peaked when his adopted and beloved fawn, Flag, had to be killed to prevent him from eating any more of the food on the family farm than he already had. This was a great challenge for Jody and it was magnified, another common theme in young adult literature, by the fact that he blamed it on his parents, who, in Jody’s mind, couldn’t possibly know what was right, let alone understand his perspective. So, of course, he had to run away, during which time he faced discomfort and danger.After he cried and starved out his grief over the loss of Flag, who he actually had to shoot after his mother’s poor aim only wounded the animal, he realized how much he missed his home and loved his parents. He returned with a clearer understanding of the meaning of, and a willingness to take on, a more grown-up role in the family. If this wasn’t a precursor, I’d suggest it was all just a little too, well, cliché.
The language and use of dialogue was my favorite part of the book. Ms. Rawlings used specific and accurate dialect and historically interesting words, both of which helped to develop both the setting and the characters. For example, Jody had spent all day building a pen to house Flag, his new fawn, so Flag wouldn’t continue to eat the growing potatoes. Flag jumped out of it as soon as he was placed there and Jody started to cry. Penny said, “Don’t git in a swivet* boy. We’ll work this out, one way or t’other. Now the ‘taters is near about the only thing he’ll bother, do you keep him outen the house. They’d ought to be under kiver anyway. Now you just take down that tipply-tumbly pen, and build a coop to kiver the ‘taters.” (*A swivet is a flustered or agitated state.)
Ms. Rawlings made delightful and abundant use of metaphor, most of which referred to how nature can represent the common relationships and situations in life. About half way through the book, Jody finds his fawn, Flag, and he’s surprised that Flag had stayed put after his mother had been killed. Jody said to Penny, “Pa, he wa’n’t skeert o’ me. He were layin’ up right where his mammy had made his bed.” Penny responded by saying, “The does learns ‘em that, time they’re borned. You kin step on a fawn, times, they lay so still.” I think this can be interpreted as part of the human condition, one Jody discovers by the end of the book, that none of us, ultimately, stray very far (at least, emotionally) from where (how) we were raised.
The Yearling was first published in 1938 toward the end of a lengthy economic depression in this country. It’s not surprising then, that the author held in high regard a poor family who made way in the world solely on the land. And the role of women could be appreciated in the historical perspective as well -- primarily good or bad -- wife and mother or “one of them leetle chipperdales”. While not originally from the rural woods of Florida it is clear that once Ms. Rawlings moved there she studied in detail the local people and culture in order to bring it so alive in her writing. She won the Pulitzer Prize for the Yearling in 1939.
As for me, I’m grateful to have one of the classics under my belt. The slow pace, use of metaphor, and detailed description of place will all be useful for my own writing. And I will not soon forget the back woods life in Florida or the wonderful characters, especially Jody with his new grasp of animal and human nature and (maybe even more so) his patient and loving father, Penny. I enjoyed this so much, not in the reading of it necessarily, but in the having read it, that I find myself looking forward to reading other “classic” books of young adult literature. Huck Fin, here I come.