Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Yearling

The 1939 Pulitzer was awarded to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings for her novel, The Yearling. It's a coming-of-age story about a young boy named Jody Baxter who lives in the back country of Florida not long after the Civil War has ended. Jody is the only child of Ory and Ezra - more commonly called Penny - and they are a modest, honest, hardworking threesome. His age is never explicitly stated, but I'd guess he's about 12 years old.

We follow Jody over the course of a pivotal year of his life during which he has many mini-adventures and several larger ones. His relationship with his father is the most important human relationship in Jody's life, but it his relationship with Flag, the baby deer he adopts and raises as a pet, that is the book's central emotional focus. Jody has a deep love of living things, most likely inherited from his father. The Baxters kill a great many living animals, but they do it respectfully and judiciously and only in order to sustain themselves. No part of any animal killed for its meat is wasted. No animal is killed inhumanely. At one point when a wolf pack is ravaging the area, Penny Baxter balks at his rough and tumble neighbors' - the Forresters - plan to poison the whole lot, clearly thinking that poison is both inhumane and unsportsmanlike, even for the terrible wolves.

Thematically, this book is closely related to some of my favorite books of all time, Where the Red Fern Grows and The Little House on the Prairie books, but I just can't love it the way I love Wilson Rawls' tale of adventure and love between a young boy and his hunting dogs in the Ozarks, or Laura Ingalls Wilder's stories of life on the wild prairie. For one, The Yearling is much too long. At 500 pages it's a daunting read for adults, let alone children - its primary audience. Perhaps that wasn't true in 1939 when it was written, but it is true today. Its length would be less discouraging were it well used, but young Jody doesn't even acquire his yearling until almost a third of the way through the novel.

Like many a "classic" bildungsroman I've read before, often the story felt repetitive - Jody and his father go to a place, get into some trouble, get out of the trouble, and go home, only to wake up the next day/week/month to go to another place, get into some more trouble, get out of some more trouble, and go home, and so on, ad nauseam, ad infinitum. If the story were more focused and included only the more signifcant events - Fodder-wing's death, the slaying of Old Slewfoot, the devastation of Grandma Hutto's home, and Jody's final and most heartwrenching adventure - it would have been a much better and more emotionally resonant story.

Which brings me to Jody's final adventure: the death of Flag. Even knowing nothing of the plot, I knew before starting this book that of course Jody would be permanently separated from the yearling in the end, either by death or the animal's return to the wild. I did not expect their separation to be quite so traumatic, given that the novel is a children's book. Once Flag becomes a yearling his wild nature overcomes all of Jody's training to domesticate him. At planting time he tramples the money tobacco crop, and twice eats the delicate green shoots of the corn crop despite Jody's best efforts to build a fence to keep him out. Faced with a winter of starvation if they cannot keep their crops, Jody's father reluctantly agrees with Ma Baxter that Flag must be killed. And then he asks Jody to do it.

I know. It's horrifying.

Obviously Jody is heartbroken and feels betrayed by his beloved father's request to kill the thing he loves most in the world, and he can't do it. When the animal returns once more to snack on the budding crops, Jody's parents become desperate to save their food supply and his mother ham-handedly shoots Flag, wounding him severely but not killing him. Jody chases his frightened pet and - through a waterfall of tears - deals the final blow, watching the life leave Flag's eyes as his heart breaks into pieces. He then runs away, determined to leave his hated parents behind forever, and after several days in the wilderness without food he comes to understand what starvation would have meant for their family and how serious Flag's seemeingly-innocent snacking truly was.

An adult reader of the story can see the justification of Flag's killing before Jody does, but it just seems too harsh, too cruel a lesson, and out of sync with the rest of the relatively lighthearted story. I'm a total crybaby when it comes to books - embarrassingly so - and I was too shocked to cry at the end of this story. Instead I felt anger that Rawlings would choose such an ending. I will not recommend this book to children, the ending is just too mean.

So this brings me to the end of the 1930s, and the start of a new decade of Pulitzers. In the 1940s eight novels received the Pulitzer Prize, including works by John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair, and James Michener. I hope it's a good decade. An easier decade than the 1930s.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Late George Crapley, er, Apley

In 1938 the twentieth Pulitzer Prize went to John P. Marquand's fake biography, The Late George Apley.

This book is, without exception, the worst book I've ever read in my entire life. It took me a YEAR to get through it. It was so boring I could only manage five pages at a time before falling asleep, and that also made it easy to choose every possible activity over reading this book. "Hm, well, I could read some more of my book, or I could get a triple root canal. Root canal it is!" My tall boyfriend took to calling this book "The Late George Crapley" because all I could talk about was how shitty it was. I'd crack the spine in bed at night and he'd turn to me and say, "Goodnight!" knowing that I'd be sound asleep within ten minutes.

The book is a fictional biography about a man from Boston named George Apley. The book's narrator is a friend of the deceased who has decided to write the story of Apley's life, and to do so he almost exclusively uses excerpts from letters of Apley's, as well as letters from his various friends and family members, while occasionally injecting his own comments about the subject. Had Marquand dropped the epistolary device and just written the story of Apley's life, it would undoubtedly have been a substantially better novel. It shares themes similar to Margaret Ayer Barnes' Years of Grace, or His Family, by Ernest Poole. And the themes are serious - family tradition, obligation, honor, free will, technological advancement - but the epistolary approach keeps the reader at a substantial distance from the novel's characters. I never felt invested in any of their lives, I never felt like I knew any of them well at all, and as a result I just didn't care and felt perpetually bored. It didn't help that Apley is a stuffy snob from Boston's old money, either.

All in all, this is not only the worst Pulitzer winner I've read so far, it is the worst book I've ever read in its entirety. Normally, when I hate a book this much I don't finish reading it. But I stuck with this one because I knew that if I quit, I would never be able to say that I've read every Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

I won't lie, it felt good to finish it. There's something to be said for perseverance. On to The Yearling. Happy New Year!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Gone With the Wind

At long last I've come to the first Pulitzer-winner that I'd read prior to beginning this challenge: Gone With the Wind. Margaret Mitchell's classic occupied a good chunk of the summer that I turned 13 and now that I've read it a second time I admit there were vast portions of it I didn't remember at all. Perhaps my original memory of the book has been eclipsed by the movie, but it's also possible that I skipped over entire sections - the spine of my 21-year old paperback copy was suspiciously pristine. I vividly remembered the first 40% of the book and the last 10% but the middle part was a bit foggy. I believe this may have improved the experience of re-reading the nineteenth novel to win the Pulitzer, since I got to see it with fresh eyes.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Honey in the *&%@)#! Horn

I must express my deepest and most heartfelt congratulations to H. L. Davis for the accomplishment that is his 1936 Pulitzer-winning novel, Honey in the Horn. It is officially the worst book I've ever read. And I've read a lot of books, so that's really saying something. Congratulations, sir!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Now in November Rain

In the 1930s, six women were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction - more than in any other single decade. (Especially the 1950s when every award went to a man.) Josephine Winslow Johnson was the fourth lady of the decade to take home the prize, in 1935, at the tender age of 24. Now in November was her first novel. It is the tragic story of a middle class family that returns to a long-forgotten farm to attempt to make new a life after the Great Depression has driven them into poverty. It is perfectly written, quietly yet powerfully feminist, and is a beautiful - if sad - story of what it meant to be a Depression-era woman living in poverty.

#16 Lamb in his Bosom

When I first read this book, I was extremely pregnant and confined to my bed. Cean, the main character, is a supreme force of womanhood in every possible sense of the phrase. Reading about this busy and industrious mother-of-many while laying flat on my back made me feel supremely lazy. The level of energy and labor it takes to run a rural household is not for the faint of heart. Despite being a big fan of all the shiny appliances of modern convenience, I was definitely intrigued by the mundane details of her day to day existence. The process of watching a big girl turn into a little woman with a home of her own was fascinating. Imagine a world without Wal-Mart or Target where every piece of your household has to be furnished from scratch and often needs to planned months ahead of time to keep everyone properly clothed and fed. Never mind the tedium of washing clothes by hand; She had to MAKE the clothes too. Most would be crushed by the pressure but her motivation against procrastination was... death.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Sweet Sixteen

In 1934 Caroline Miller became the first Georgian to win the Pulitzer Prize with her novel Lamb in His Bosom. While it's better known than some other early winners, it's not widely known by modern readers. I'm not especially surprised at its relative obscurity, after all, Margaret Mitchell's epic 1937 winner, Gone With the Wind, was destined to outshine many of its counterparts for a long time to come. The Wikipedia entry about Lamb in His Bosom is 65 words long. The entry for Gone With the Wind is 10,665 words!

Set in rural Georgia, the novel tells the story of a poor family eking their living out of the land around them in the two decades leading up to the Civil War. They are modest people, God-fearing, largely uneducated, they don't own slaves (not because of a moral objection, but because they are poor), and they're mostly oblivious to the larger world around them. Their attention is focused on their land, their children, their chores, and their lifelong family drama. I enjoyed this book a lot. You should read it.