Rawlings uses the first part of her novel to establish the relationship between Jody and his parents as well as to suggest the relationship between Penny and Ora, who emerges as a dominant, although not very appealing, figure. Jody, because of the physical isolation of his surroundings, has few playmates, but Rawlings establishes that he and Fodder-Wing Forrester are good friends. Fodder-Wing, however, is the atypical child in his large family. Crippled, he is kinder and more appealing than his violent, lawless brothers. Rawlings also sets up Penny and Jody’s friendship with Grandma Hutto and establishes that Penny and Oliver Hutto, Grandma’s son, are close friends.
When Oliver returns from sea, he is drawn into a barroom brawl with Lem Forrester over Twink Weatherby, Oliver’s fiancée. When the Forrester boys join the fray, Penny and Jody try to protect Oliver. This fight is necessary to the story because it establishes the Oliver-Penny-Jody underdog status, but Rawlings also uses it to show that these simple folk, when a crisis occurs, can let bygones be bygones.
Bad blood has existed between Penny and the Forresters for some time. Penny is basically moral, but, desperate for a hunting rifle with which to hunt Old Slewfoot, the bear that has been ravaging his crops and killing livestock in the area, he traded the Forresters a worthless dog in return for a rifle that, with minor repairs, was perfectly good. Penny forewarned the Forresters that the dog was not trainable, but that made them the more eager to trade. They thought that Penny was trying to deceive them because he really wanted to keep the dog.
When Penny discovers that his hogs have disappeared, he suspects that this is the Forresters’ way of repaying the disadvantageous trade that they made with him. Penny and Jody strike out to find the missing hogs, and when they wander into the swamp, a rattlesnake bites Penny. He shoots a doe, using her liver to draw the poison from his wound. Penny limps to his cabin, while Jody goes to the Forresters to beg a ride to Doc Wilson’s. The Forresters, although they have just fought with Penny and Jody, hold no grudges in the face of this crisis, realizing that Penny had to come to Oliver’s aid in the barroom. They not only fetch Doc Wilson, but Buck Forrester moves into the Baxter cabin to help with the chores until Penny recovers.
When Jody returns to the swamp and finds the motherless fawn, Flag, the story’s main conflict begins. Obviously, the Baxters feel an obligation to the fawn, whose mother’s death made Penny’s survival possible. This sense of obligation, however, does not diminish the fact that Flag, in order to survive, must be fed from the Baxter’s meager food supply.
Flag becomes domesticated, but, as a wild animal, it retains its animal ways. Rawlings presents the fawn so beguilingly that readers immediately identify with it, even personify it. Consequently, they develop an antipathy for Ora Baxter, who, completely rationally, realizes that the fawn’s presence is threatening her family’s overall welfare. She finally convinces Penny of this, and as a result, Jody begins to have violent disagreements with his father, a disaffection that mirrors his coming-of-age.
The Baxters’ situation becomes desperate when Penny falls ill and a September storm ruins their crops. Old Slewfoot kills another of the Baxters’ hogs, but Penny’s illness prevents him from pursuing the marauding bear. By the time that wolves attack livestock in the area, Penny has recovered sufficiently to hunt them down with the Forresters, who in the course of the hunt find...
(This entire section contains 808 words.)
ten bear cubs whose mother has been shot by hunters. The Forresters take the cubs to Jacksonville and sell them, sharing the profits with Penny.
The Baxters plan to visit Grandma Hutto for Christmas, but just before they are to leave, Old Slewfoot again attacks the Baxters’ livestock. Penny pursues the bear, this time killing it. When they arrive in Volusia for their Christmas celebration with Grandma Hutto, they discover that Oliver has come back to town with his bride, Twink. Lem Forrester, jealous of Twink’s marriage, comes into town with his brothers and torches Grandma Hutto’s house, burning it to the ground. Oliver, however, does not realize who set the fire. The next day, he and his bride, along with Grandma Hutto, leave Volusia on a riverboat to resettle in Boston.
The Baxters endure a difficult winter, and when spring arrives, Penny and Jody plant their crops, only to have them destroyed by Flag, which leads finally to the story’s sad ending in which Jody must destroy Flag. The boy, now at the threshold of adulthood, feels betrayed by his parents and makes a feeble attempt to run away from home.