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The Yearling

Updated: Mar 11, 2023


Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

1938

Grosset & Dunlap, New York


428 heartwarming pages


Overview

Straight forward narrative of a year in the life of a young boy on a small rural farm in 1870’s Florida.





Summary

Jody Baxter is a 12-year-old boy with a busy routine of chores on the small rural farm where he lives with his mother and father. He loves escaping to the woods and open fields, and longs for an animal companion, but his mother refuses to allow him any pets. In early Spring, a bear attacks their brood sow and Mr. Baxter and Jody go on a hunt for the culprit, during which the father is bitten by a rattlesnake. In the emergency, Mr. Baxter shoots a doe and uses her organs to draw out the poison. He is able to make it home and survives the snake bite. Jody realizes the doe had a fawn who is now motherless and in need of care and convinces his father to allow him to adopt the fawn as a pet.


The Foresters are the wild and unruly neighbors who live a few miles from the Baxters. The youngest boy is crippled and best friends with Jody, but becomes ill and dies. The friend names the fawn ‘Flag’ just before his death.


Jody raises Flag with much care and they go everywhere together. Later that summer, there is a flood and, in the aftermath, a disease in the wildlife that makes game very scarce. In the winter, the same bear attacks their livestock and they go on another hunt, eventually finding it and killing it.


During the year, the Foresters become involved in a heated dispute with a friend of the Baxter’s who lives in the nearby town. On Christmas eve, the dispute turns violent, and the two neighbors become estranged.


The following Spring, Jody and his father plant their corn and other crops for the year. But Flag comes along in the night and eats all of the seedlings that have come up. They try putting up a fence and planting again, but it doesn’t work and the yearling deer again eats all of the young plants. The parents tell Jody he has to kill Flag; the family must have the crops to survive. Jody understands the problem, but cannot bring himself to shoot his pet. He wants to send Flag away but knows the deer will only follow him and return to the farm. When his mother sees that he hasn’t killed the deer, she takes a shotgun and shoots him herself, but only wounds him. Jody must shoot his beloved pet to put it out of its misery, then runs away from home, devastated. After a few days, he returns home and reconciles with his father with the understanding that he must accept misfortune as a part of life.



Review

Despite my meager summary, the story is rich in detail and description. It’s an engaging tale of events and the writing is fluid and seamless - well-deserved of its Pulitzer Prize. The book is now relegated to the genre of ‘young adult’ for its central character and uncomplicated narrative.


Foremost, the story is slow-paced; the author is in no hurry. For example, the yearling appears only after a good third into the book. The reader doesn’t get bored, however, as we are entertained with the life of this boy - perhaps even more so now eighty years on, as we read about a way of living that is, for the most part, extinct in our county.


The first three quarters of the book feel like a Hallmark movie, with Jody’s exuberance, and life going well for the Baxter family. Some difficulties arise, there are agreeable resolutions and a return to happiness. But unlike a classic Hallmark, it isn’t overly sentimental or romantic, nor a roller coaster ride of drama. It’s a good story, well done, filled with subtle and casual details that create depth and richness. Without dwelling too long in any one space, she paints a beautiful and exciting panoramic of the time and place.


It's the boy’s loss of innocence that we are witnessing. The story opens with Jody’s escape from his chores to let his mind and body run free in the woods. But with his father’s threatening disabilities (the snake bite, his hernia), with the violence of the neighbors resulting in the loss of good friends, and finally with the cruel position between his love for his pet and his love for his family, he is removed forever from his innocent world view. His own father says as much in the beginning, justifying his leniency on his son for the boyish escapades: the day’ll come, he’ll not even care to.


If you haven’t already guessed, Jody is the ‘yearling’. His parents directly refer to him as such, commenting on their son’s exuberance and his innocence. In the end, Jody’s coming-of-age lesson is that he has to take his share of life’s adversities, and take them like a man.


Subtheme:

Jody reflects occasionally on his own conflict between hunting the game, killing the game, and eating the game. He loves the hunt – it’s exciting and thrilling. But he doesn’t like the violence of the kill and he feels bad for the creature who is now dead. Then there is a return to excitement at the meal, for the meat is delicious and so soothing to a hungry belly. This same sentiment was expressed in the book Cardigan, where the main character is conflicted between his passion for the hunt and his dislike of the kill. In our modern world we are so far removed from the death of our delicious meat that we scarcely even remember it was once a living creature, and I’m sure that most people would find the sights and sounds of slaughter even more disagreeable than a hunter. There seems to be something innate about this conflict.



To the Author's Credit:

She gives her characters a very folksy, backwoods, uneducated dialect, and at the same time her characters are anything but stupid or goofy. It gives the story authenticity instead of cliché.


To the Author's Discredit:

Well…there is one small plot hole that bothered me from the beginning. Jody’s problem is that he is lonely and longs for companionship in a pet. His mother has forbidden any pets given that they are too poor for another mouth to feed. True, they are poor, and even if they could spare a little, she might be too afraid to allow it. But there are pets that you don’t necessarily have to feed from your table. First come to mind is a cat. A cat can and will hunt itself, and if hungry, eat its prey. If not, it will just leave it by your bed. Or how about a bird? If they run out of crumbs, I’m sure the boy would gather some seeds, berries and insects from the woods. Or a little deer mouse, a dime a dozen out there, and so cute with their big ears and big feet. Of course, it would not have worked as well for the story if Jody had had other pets, and the fawn wasn’t his first and only. But for me, it is the one unrealistic detail of the book.



Best Lines:

It was good to have it taken for granted that he had a little sense of his own.


Dogs were the same everywhere, and oxen and mules and horses. But trees were different in different places.


His head was swimming with the strong brew made up of the sun and the air and the thin gray rain.


"Boy, your ears is set up on your head like a 'possum's."


"A 'coon lives for one thing, to whop a dog."


She ladled the food into pans big enough to wash in. The long trenchered table was covered with steam. There were dried cow-peas boiled with white bacon, a haunch of roast venison, a platter of fried squirrel, swamp cabbage, big hominy, biscuits, cornbread, syrup and coffee. A raisin pudding waited at the side of the hearth.


Magic birds were dancing in a mystic marsh.


"Well, sir, the dog was part fox-hound and part blood-hound and part jest dog."


"Hit's a toad-strangler of a rain."



Just to note...

There are two instances of the out-dated term 'nigger', not surprising if we keep in mind that this story is set long before our collective awareness of the insulting nature of the word. It's used here, as was so common, not in a malicious or derogatory way, but just as a reference.

He's got a foot like a Georgia nigger. (very large)

'nigger-fashion' (the way he arranged the wood)


In the author's 1942 memoir Cross Creek, she uses the words 'colored' and 'black' to refer to African Americans.











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