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.

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