The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1938)

The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

The Yearling, a 1938 novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1896 – 1953), was the most successful work by this American author. It was an immediate bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1939.

Rawlings struggled to gain a foothold in the literary world and made no secret that she found writing to be a difficult task. After buying an orange grove in Cross Creek, Florida, where she subsequently lived for many decades, she found the inspiration she had long sought from the local culture and  landscape.

The Yearling might now be considered more of a young adult novel, though at the time, this was not yet a separate genre. However, it’s a book for readers of all ages. It can be enjoyed as a great narrative coming-of-age story, or read as a parable.

The Yearling came out as a major Metro-Goldwyn Mayer film in 1946, and starred Gregory Peck as Penny Baxter, Claude Jarman, Jr. as Jody, and Jane Wyman as Ma Baxter.

 

Has The Yearling lost its status as a classic?

It can be argued that The Yearling has lost status in the American literary canon. A reconsideration in Harper’s Magazine in 2014, the book’s 75th anniversary, argued for its preservation. This lengthy article by Lauren Groff is worth reading if you’re an admirer of Rawlings’ work, or want to be. It describes succinctly the stature that Rawlings and her most famous book enjoyed (hard-won though it was) in her time: 

“The Yearling was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It was the best-selling novel of 1938, and it has sold millions of copies since. The book remains familiar in a vague way to many American adults, who probably read it in school or have seen the 1946 film based on it. But it is more than a bestseller, and certainly more than a dated children’s book. It is a genuine classic, influenced by Hemingway’s declarative simplicity and edited by Hemingway’s legendary editor, Maxwell Perkins.

For a time, its author was a literary figure to rival the rest of Perkins’s stable, which included F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was friends with Zora Neale Hurston, Martha Gellhorn, and Robert Frost. She corresponded with John Steinbeck, Thornton Wilder, and Eleanor Roosevelt. She was Margaret Mitchell’s guest at the Atlanta premiere of Gone with the Wind. Her house in Cross Creek, about twenty miles from Gainesville, is a state park.”

Following is a wonderfully descriptive review of The Yearling from 1938, the year it came out. Note that it reveals key plot points, none of which aren’t already well known and much discussed in reviews. So if you prefer to be surprised, read the book before perusing any  reviews.

 

A 1938 review of The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

From the original review of The Yearling in The Detroit Free Press, April 10, 1938:  Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Tells a Powerful Story of a Boy Growing into Manhood

A novel of Florida, the story has nothing in common with the Florida of Palm Beach and Miami. It is a tale of the virtual pioneering which goes on in the heart of that peninsula state, in its swamp land and “hammocks,” its higher, drier spots like the fictional Baxter’s Island.

The title refers to the young boy, Jody Baxter, who approaches manhood in the single year of the story’s compass; although there is another yearling, the orphan fawn that Jody brings in from the wilderness. The affection for the fawn, Flag, is regarded by some readers as too sentimental in its treatment by Rawlings.

While we may agree that Jody’s devotion to Flag has moments that are a little tiresome, this very reaction proves the soundness of Rawlings’ emphasis. What adult in real life can maintain unfailing interest in any adolescent passion, whatever it may be? The best many a parent can achieve is a polite tolerance.

It’s not enough to dismiss the fawn’s existence in the story as a pretty device. As the baby fawn grows into a yearling, according to its nature, it becomes a menace to the hard-won livelihood of the Baxters, Pa, Ma, and Jody.

Twice, Flag eats the succulent green shoots of the new corn and ruins the crop. Twice, Jody’s faith in Flag is put to the test. The boy works harder than he ever has in his young life to protect Flag from the judgment of his understanding father and his more matter-of-fact mother.

Throughout the story the point is made that Penny Baxter, a confederate veteran who is Jody’s father is a wise huntsman who never kills game except to meet his own needs. Penny has always sympathized with Jody’s wish for something of his very own, just as his old hound, Julia, has shadowed his own footsteps.

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The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1938)

Quotes from The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
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But the laws of human need and survival are stern. The moment comes, at the end, when Penny insists that Jody kill his pet. Jody refuses. Penny is ailing and cannot hold a gun. Ma Baxter, a poor shot, wounds Flag, and Jody is forced to end the animal’s misery. Then he runs away, convinced that even his father has betrayed him.

In a few days of Jody’s futile attempt at escape, he experiences hunger that is akin to starvation, not mere appetite. Rescued from a cockle-shell boat and set down at the home landing, Jody wanders home because he can go nowhere else, only to find that home was where he was wanted as well as needed.

“I’m goin’ to talk to you, man to man,” Penny tells Jody. “You figgered I went back on you. Now there’s a thing ever’ man has got to know. Mebbe you know it a’ready. Twa’nt only me. Twa’nt only your yearlin’ deer havin’ to be destroyed. Boy, life goes back on you.”

Penny had done what many another parent has tried to do — shield a beloved child from the sorrows and hardships of life. But when thing was no longer possible, he could only tell the boy that “life knocked a man down and he gets up and it knocks him down agin’ … But ever’ man’s lonesome. What’s he to do then? What’s he to do what he gits knocked down? Why, take it for his share and go on.”

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The yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings on Amazon
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The Yearling is a superb study of adolescence, which should deepen the sympathies of all who have any dealings with the young.

Beyond that, it’s a detailed and often exciting narrative of a hardscrabble way of American life. For its minutia of daily living, it reminds one of Della Lutes’ The Country Kitchen. We know what the Baxters had to eat — the bear meat, the cracklin’ bread, the pork and greens, and how they traded game for staples at the store at Volusia Landing.

Their neighbors in the scrub are the Forresters, great strapping fellows who have a rollicking, roving live. Lem is the mean one, who added to Jody’s education in the low-down ways of human nature. Buck and Mill-wheel are kinder, with Buck helping on the Baxter land when Penny is bitten by a rattler.

Fodder-wing, the little crippled Forrester,  and Jody’s only friend, makes pets of all the wild creatures and, in death, brings another human experience close to Jody.

Jody and Penny almost miss the Christmas “doin’s” at Volusia for the showdown hunt after old Slewfoot, the marauding bear. That Christmas Eve, the Forresters write the final chapter in their feud with Oliver Hutto, who takes is new wife, Twink, the troublemaker, and Grandma Hutto away with him, out of Jody’s life.

To sum up, The Yearling is an acutely real story an existence at once contemporary and utterly alien. Even the dialect is alien, but it’s one that clearly has its roots in the old English, not a dialect of ignorance. What is contemporary, timeless, and universal is the bittersweet story of lost youth.

“Somewhere beyond the sinkhole past the magnolia, under the live oaks, a boy and a yearling ran side by side, and were gone forever.”

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Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings 1939

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