“A column of smoke rose thin and straight from the cabin chimney. The smoke was blue where it left the red of the clay. It trailed into the blue of the April sky and was no longer blue but blue gray. The boy Jody watched it…” -opening lines
Set in the late 19th century wildlands of central Florida, The Yearling is Margaret Kinnan Rawlings’s most celebrated novel. The book was the product of Rawlings’s relocation to a vast citrus ranch in “hammock country” at Cross Creek, Florida. Fascinated by the world around her, she filled numerous notebooks documenting the flora, fauna, and culture of the region. She wrote about the simple but harsh lives of the “Florida Cracker” people. The term ‘Cracker’ was a nickname for the Southern peoples who migrated southward from Appalachia to Georgia and Florida before it became a pejorative. The nickname from the cracking sound of cattlemen whips. The rural area outside Gainesville was composed mainly of poor whites who survived by hunting, fishing, or tending to the surrounding orchards. It was a difficult life.
The Yearling takes place across one year in the life of a twelve year old boy named Jody Baxter. Jody is the only child of Penny and Ora “Ma” Baxter. They are a family of subsistence hunters and farmers who struggle to survive. Jody’s father, Penny Baxter, is a small but a capable hunter who leads Jody through the untamed wilderness filled with bears, wolves, and panthers. Before settling in Florida Penny was apparently a Confederate veteran. His background is somewhat mysterious but little clues are dropped throughout the story. In the novel we are introduced to a variety of other characters as well: Slewfoot, a crafty bear who seems to elude the Baxters at every turn (until the conclusion); the Forresters, an unruly neighboring family whose handicapped son “Fodder-wing” becomes friends with Jody; and the old and wise Grandma Hutto.
Despite being a well-celebrated novel, I found The Yearling to be a drab and dreary read. There is almost nothing at stake in the novel. The only remarkable plot points occur at the beginning and the end. At the outset Jody’s father, Penny, gets bitten by a rattle snake. He and Jody race home and en route Penny slays a deer to harvest the poison from his body. Despite this saving grace Jody must still run to the find a doctor. Thankfully he is granted aid from nearby rivals: the Forresters. From this experience Jody befriends the slain deer’s fawn which he names “Flag.” Jody brings Flag back to live with the Baxter family and we, the listless readers, are offered several hundred pages of scenes of hunting and attacks by wolves or bears. Very little actually drives the plot forward in this section of the novel. Only at the end, when we arrive at Penny’s ailing health, do we discover Jody’s dramatic conflict over the need to kill Flag (Flag ate a portion of the Baxter family’s vital food supplies). In the final chapter Jody subsequently attempts a flight to Boston, but he is soon picked up and returned home, revealing himself to suddenly be a mature young man who is capable of filling in for his father. At the conclusion, he is no longer a “yearling” (the comparisons between the death of Flag and the loss of Jody’s innocence are made starkly apparent). While intended to be a “coming of age” tale in the vein of later young adult novels like Where The Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, or Hatchet, The Yearling is a bit of slog to get through. I would not soon recommend this novel to anyone save for the most committed readers of the Pulitzer Prize winners. Rawlings is to be praised for her bucolic portrait of a region and lifestyle rarely highlighted, but the plot, structure, and characters in The Yearling are found sorely lacking. A film version of The Yearling was made in 1946 starring Gregory Peck (click here to read my review of the film).
The following are some memorable quotations I found while reading:
“He was addled with April. He was dizzy with Spring. He was as drunk as Lem Forrester on a Saturday night. His head was swimming with the strong brew made up of the sun and the air and the thin gray rain” (17).
“In a late afternoon toward the end of August, Jody went with the fawn to the sink-hole for fresh water for supper. The road was bright with flowers. The sumac was in bloom, and the colic root sent up tall stalks of white or orange orchid-like flowers. The French mulberries were beginning to ripen on slim stems. They were lavender in color, close-clustered, like snails’ eggs along lily stalks. Butterflies sat on the first purple buds of the fragrant deer-tongue, opening and closing their wings slowly, as though waiting for the buds to open and the nectar to be revealed. The covey call of quail sounded again…” (259 -this quotation is representative of many beautiful scene-setting passages in The Yearling).
“He found himself listening for something. It was the sound of the yearling for which he listened, running around the house or stirring on his moss pallet in the corner of the bedroom. He would never hear him again… Flag – he did not believe he should ever again love anything, man or woman or his own child, as he had loved the yearling. He would be lonely all his life… In the beginning of his sleep, he cried out, ‘Flag!’ It was not his own voice that called. It was a boy’s voice. Somewhere beyond the sink-hole, past the magnolia, under the live-oaks, a boy and a yearling ran side by side, and were gone forever” (509 -closing lines).
About The 1939 Pulitzer Prize Decision
The 1939 Novel Jury was composed of three returning Novel Jury members, all Columbia University faculty members: Joseph W. Krutch (Chair), Jefferson B. Fletcher, and Robert M. Lovett.
Amidst some grumblings about the Jury’s first choice for The Yearling there were several other novels considered: All This and Heaven Too by Rachel Field, the story of a French governess who scandalously falls in love with her employer prior to the French Revolution of 1848; Black is My True Love by Elizabeth Mattox Roberts, the story of a shamed woman’s return to her home village; May Flavin by Myron Brinig, the story about the life and struggles of an Irish girl brought up in Chicago who grows into an adult and raised a family in New York; and Renown by Frank O. Hough, a story of Benedict Arnold in the American Revolutionary War.
Who Is Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings?
Born Marjorie Kinnan in 1896, she grew up in Washington DC before attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In college she met Charles Rawlings and they were married. In their early years together they moved frequently from Kentucky to New York (however in her later years Marjorie grew to despise all things urban).
In 1928 Rawlings received an inheritance from her mother and purchased a 72-acre orange grove on Cross Creek near Hawthorne, Florida. Here, she began writing. Rawlings acquired a literary agent, Max Perkins of Scribner’s, the same agent as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Her stories mainly focused on the lives of neighbors and acquaintances around the poor, rural area of north-central Florida (south of Gainesville), however some were unhappy with their portrayals and she was later sued in a lengthy libel lawsuit much to her dismay.
Rawlings first success was South Moon Under in 1933 which was considered for the Pulitzer Prize, but her magnum opus was The Yearling in 1938. It was a Book of the Month, was the best-selling novel of 1938, won the Pulitzer, and MGM acquired the movie rights for a film starring Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman that was released in 1946. The book was distributed the troops abroad in World War II. Meanwhile, Charles divorced Marjorie. He did not enjoy the rural life in Florida.
Marjorie drew the ire of her neighbors both for her portrayals of them as characters in her stories, as well as for her open-minded racial tolerance. She once invited Zora Neal Hurston to stay at her home, and rather than forcing Hurston to stay in a tenant or workman’s house, Rawlings invited her to stay within her personal home. This tension culminated in Rawlings moving away.
She moved to a beach house near St. Augustine, Florida. She remarried Norton Baskin, a hotelier. She renovated and ran an old hotel with her husband and continued to write until she died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1953. Most of her property was donated to the University of Florida where she taught creative writing. A dormitory on the campus and an elementary school are named in her honor. Today, her orange grove and farmhouse are maintained as a historic state park in Florida. During her lifetime she had published numerous short stories (and was a winner of the O. Henry Award). She published a semi-fictional memoir, and posthumously released a children’s book called The Secret River. It won the Newbury Medal.
Rawlings, Marjorie Kinnan. The Yearling. New York, Aladdin Classics (Simon & Schuster), 2001 (1938).