[SPOILER ALERT: I can’t see how I can write about this book and not write about the ending.]
The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, was published in 1938 and spent 23 consecutive weeks as the number-one best seller. It received the Pulitzer Prize in 1939.
It seems strange that this book about a young boy living in the Florida scrub land amidst alligators and snakes sometime around the turn of the century had such an appeal to me, a young girl who lived in a northern Canadian city in the 1960s. So much of it was unfamiliar to me. The boy’s name is Jody Baxter, and his father is called Penny. Both of these were girl’s names in my world. But at least they were somewhat familiar names. Jody’s mother’s name is Ory. The Baxter’s nearest neighbours are a riotous clan of boys and men called the Forresters, with such names as Mill-wright and, Jody’s best friend, the crippled boy Fodder-wing. And they way they talked! I can remember struggling to understand the characters’ dialogue, in passages like this, in which Penny is talking to Jody about where Jody has been for the day:
“Tell the truth, Jody,” he said, “and shame the devil. Wa’n’t the bee-tree a fine excuse to go a-ramblin’?”
“The notion takened me, ” he admitted, ‘afore I studied on the bee-tree.”
I never heard anyone talk like that where I lived!
The setting of the novel, the fertile and dangerous Florida backwoods, filled with plants and animals I could hardly imagine, was as exotic to me as the speech and characters.
I have often puzzled over why I loved this book so much, and so it was with some curiosity that I opened the cover and began to read it once more.
By the end of the first chapter I was hooked again. That chapter, in which Jody goes to his secret glen and builds himself a small water-mill to put in the creek that ran from a hidden spring, brings Jody and the land in which he lives to life in such a way that I was brought right back to my childhood, when everything else but the task in which I was absorbed fell away. It’s beautiful and full of the exuberance of spring and of youth.
The novel begins and ends in this glen, and it covers a year in Jody’s life, a year in which he leaves his childhood behind and becomes an adult. The Baxters work hard to survive but from Jody’s eyes, a boy who does not yet understand the threat of starvation that haunts them, it’s a charmed life and Baxter’s Island (an higher plateau in the midst of the scrub) is no better place to Iive in the world.
Jody is an only child, the six siblings that came before him have all died in infancy or early childhood. This is a sorrow that doesn’t touch him, for, like all children, he is mainly self-absorbed. He longs with all his heart for a pet, something of his that he can love. But Ma Baxter sees only the impediment a pet would bring, especially in the sharing of their own thin rations.
The Forresters and the Baxters have a civil relationship, the two families need each other to survive the harsh existence of the scrub, but the Forrester’s boisterous ways are looked upon with disapproval by Jody’s ma. Fodder-wing and Jody are friends, though; the young Forrester is very unlike his brothers and, like Jody, had a love for the creatures of the woods. But unlike Jody, Fodder-wing is allowed to tame some animals and keep them as pets, and Jody has great delight in seeing these wild creatures up close.
The two families cooperate in a bear hunt (Ol’ Slewfoot is a menace to both families’ livestock) and are set at odds over a love triangle involving a mutual friend, Oliver Hutto, and Lem Forrester. The upshot of the fight over the girl, Twink (again, these names!), is that the Forresters steal the Baxter’s pigs and Jody and Penny set out to find them.
Disaster strikes in the form of a rattlesnake: Penny is bitten and in trying to save his life he kills a deer, using the fresh liver to try to draw out the poison. To Jody’s dismay the doe had a fawn, whom they are forced to leave motherless.
Penny recovers, and Jody persuades his parents to allow him to collect the fawn from the woods and raise it as his own, and Ma has to reluctantly agree, for it was through the sacrifice of the doe that Penny survived.
And so Jody and the fawn spend a wondrous summer together, even despite the dark things of life that throw shadows on their idyllic existence, such as the continuing tensions between the Forresters and the Baxters, a flood that wipes out their crops and causes a disease among the animals, and, especially, the death of Fodder-Wing.
Rawlings has a lovely style of writing. I was struck by how lean and spare the prose was, even in the midst of her lush descriptions of the Florida scrub. I discovered that her editor also worked with Ernest Hemingway, which immediately shed light on her style. For example, here is a passage where a bear has come into Baxter’s yard during the time when Penny was recovering from the snake bite and Buck Forrester had come to stay, to help out:
Jody shouted, “Give me the fire-pan, Buck, and you do the shooting’.”
He felt frightened and incompetent. They exchanged on the run. At the fence the bear turned at bay. He slashed at the dogs. His eyes and teeth shone in the spasmodic light. Then he turned to clamber over the fence. Buck shot. The bear tumbled. The dogs broke into a tumult. Penny came running. The light showed a kill. The dogs made a pretense of having done the job, and bayed and attacked proudly. Buck was smug.
These short, clipped sentences allow us to see the action with our own mind’s eye, without any long-winded descriptions that slow down the narrative. But the whole book is not quite to that extreme. Throughout the book Rawlings expertly gives us enough to help us see and feel what Jody sees and feels, and then gets out of the way. Here’s another passage, where Jody is reflecting on the loss of Fodder-wing as he watched the racoons play:
The sink-hole lay all in shadow. Suddenly it seemed to Jody that Fodder-wing had only now gone away with the racoons. Something of him had been always where the wild creatures fed and played. Something of him would be always near them. Fodder-wing was like the trees. He was of the earth, as they were earthy, with his gnarled, frail roots deep in the sand. He was like the changing clouds and the setting sun and the rising moon. A part of him had been always outside his twisted body. It had come and gone like the wind. It came to Jody that he need not be lonely for his friend again. He could endure his going.
Jody is beginning to mature, the rough and tumble of life knocking some of the smooth edges off of his childhood. And then the climax of the book arrives, and we, along with Jody, are swept into his final crisis.
Now, I have read this book many, many times as a child. But I can honestly say that I had forgotten exactly what happened at the end. If you were to ask me I would have said that the fawn (named Flag by Fodder-wing on his deathbed), grew wilder as he matured and one day he left Jody to return to the wild, and Jody had to accept that his childhood friend was gone forever.
That’s probably how I would have written it, to be honest. So you can imagine my shock when I read that Penny, crippled by rheumatism, orders Jody to kill the fawn, as he has escaped the pen Jody built to keep him in and eaten much of the tender shoots of corn, growing to replace what was lost in the flood.
Jody rebels, his love for Flag, so beautifully described throughout the book, cannot allow him to do it, and he fashions a halter and runs away with the yearling deer. But the fawn grows tired of the trek and breaks the halter, and Jody tracks him back to Baxter’s Island, where he discovers that Flag has eaten even more of the corn, and some of the cow-peas, as well.
Ma Baxter shoots Flag, wounding him, and Jody is forced to track him into the woods, and put him out of his misery himself.
For the life of me I can’t imagine how I could have forgotten this. It is such a shock, the lack of descriptive emotive words to soften the blow making it almost harder to bear. Our hearts are torn along with Jody’s. In his grief and rage he runs away again, thinking to go to Boston, but he nearly starves to death on his ill-planned journey.
He comes back to Baxter’s Island a couple weeks later a young man, with childhood put away. The lessons learned are summed up by Penny, who says,
“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 yearling’. 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.”
Oh, how I can relate to this, much more than I did when I read this as a child. Which is why this book was so very popular. Jody’s tale, although specific to this unique time and place, is nevertheless a universal one, a journey we all go through.
In that sense it is a timeless story, speaking to us of love and loss, and of the beauty and terror of the world. A simple story about simple people in a simpler time, but full of profound truth. We see that to love is to be cut by the knife of sorrow, and yet the joy of that love is still worth the pain. Hard choices face us in our lives, and the best we can do is to face them with courage and dignity.
And the sadness that we experience does not have to break us, but instead make us stronger by its having touched us.
I am very glad to meet The Yearling again, for in my re-reading of the book these truths came to life for me once more.
And it reminded me that if we are very lucky, we can keep a secret place in our hearts where we can romp with the carefree abandon of a child, a place where the wonder of life can make us spin like a top on a sunny spring afternoon, to fall exhausted and happy on a bed of fresh green grass.
Writing take-away: Write the truth, for even though it is not always safe, the truth is always good. (with apologies to C.S. Lewis).
Bonus: To my very great delight, a few years ago I discovered that one of my favourite singer-songwriters, Andrew Peterson, had written a song called The Ballad of Jody Baxter. It’s as haunting and beautiful as The Yearling, and I leave it for you as a special treat.
Next month: I am going to reluctantly leave Baxter’s Island behind, although I would dearly love to linger there awhile longer. But I’m off to an altogether stranger place, where nothing makes sense, not really. I’ll be revisiting Alice in Wonderland, and I hope you will come down the rabbit hole with me!