Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The Yearling is an initiatory tale in which an innocent and happy twelve-year-old boy passes into young adulthood. Some of his youthful illusions are shattered by the end of the year in his life that the book chronicles, but Jody emerges with a substantial hold on the adulthood that stretches ahead of him.
Jody Baxter lives in the scrubby inland country of central Florida not far south of the Georgia line, the area out of Gainesville in which Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings herself lived intermittently. He is the only child of Penny and Ora Baxter, two people who barely scrape by on what they can grow or catch when Penny goes hunting or fishing. Jody accompanies his father on his food-seeking adventures and also helps with the family’s minimal farming. Despite the Baxter’s poverty, Jody’s childhood seems ideal by most standards. The boy has a particularly strong bond with his father. He is less sure of his feelings toward his mother, a large, dominating woman who rules a roost that clearly someone has to rule. Penny is easygoing and not always practical. Ora’s temperament complements his. She views life realistically, forcing practicality upon her two men, even though they do not always appreciate her efforts to control them in this way.
By drawing Ora as she does, Rawlings defines important lines of conflict in her novel, which was awarded the 1938 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Although The Yearling is sentimental, it had...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The Yearling was perfect for its time: In 1938, Europe was arming for a war into which the United States would inevitably be drawn. The reading public badly needed a book that glorified innocence and reflected a less complicated era than the one facing a populace still suffering from the Great Depression, shocked by the Spanish Civil War and its atrocities, and apprehensive about the rise of fascism in Germany, much of Eastern Europe, and Italy.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings did not live in an age notable for the kind of feminism that emerged in the United States during the 1970’s and 1980’s, although in her early years, suffragettes were active in seeking the voting rights that women were finally accorded in 1920. In The Yearling, Rawlings certainly did not set out consciously to make a statement about the status of women. Nevertheless, she makes two important points about matters that are important in terms of feminist issues.
First, in her depiction of Ora Baxter, Rawlings creates a strong, almost overpowering female character who, if her actions are at times distressing, can at least be justified. The Baxters live at the edge economically. Not only does their farm produce little, but Penny’s bouts of illness leave him unable to hunt for the food that the family needs and render him powerless, at times, to prevent the onslaughts that bears and wolves make on his livestock. Viewing the Baxters’ situation realistically,...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Baxter’s Island. Farm of the Baxter family covering one hundred acres of Florida scrubland in the middle of a dry forest. Penny Baxter bought the land from the Forrester family, whose neighboring farm is called Forrester’s Island. The Baxter farm is covered with hardwood trees and rich foliage, representing a place of refuge, an oasis in a harsh natural environment.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who lived in Cross Creek between the towns of Gainesville and Ocala, not far from the places her novel describes, admired the independence of the people who lived in Florida’s backwoods. Her fictional Baxter evidently chose to farm on this land because of its isolation. Shunning city life, which makes “intrusions on the individual spirit,” Penny settles on the Florida scrub because the “wild animals seemed less predatory to him than the people he had known.” He learns to live in harmony with nature and to subsist on what his land has to offer. The challenge is great, however, because Baxter’s Island is “ringed with hunger,” and the family’s survival is constantly threatened by natural hazards, including harsh weather, predatory animals, and even the docile deer that Jody Baxter adopts as a pet—the “yearling” of the novel’s title.
*Ocklawaha River. Florida river that originates in several lakes near the center of the state and flows northward along the edge of what is now the Ocala National Forest before it joins the St. Johns River south of Palatka. Lined with cypress trees, swamp maples, and sable palms whose growth is dense enough to form a canopy above its channel, the river symbolizes the danger and beauty that humans must learn to respect, and understand.
After his mother shoots the yearling that has been destroying the freshly planted corn, Jody decides to run away from home. He heads for the river, on which he sets off in a dugout canoe. After several days without food, he is picked up by a river mail boat and returned home, ashamed and penitent.
*Juniper Creek. Exceptionally clear stream fed by a spring that for Jody is a natural sanctuary.
Ideas for Group Discussions
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bellman, Samuel. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. New York: Twayne, 1974. A basic beginner’s overview of Rawlings’ life and artistic output. The section on The Yearling provides good background information regarding its composition and the people who inspired Rawlings.
Bigelow, Gordon. Frontier Eden: The Literary Career of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1966. An important study of Rawlings’ complete works and a source of interviews and eyewitness accounts of Rawlings’ life in Cross Creek. The last chapter, “The Literary Artist,” focuses on Rawlings’ philosophy of composition....
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