Form and Content
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 phenomenal sales in the years immediately following its publication and has regularly been a steady seller. The book, sincere and fresh, appeals to young people, among whom it is a classic. Rawlings tells her story in a straightforward, chronological way that works well for a book that is neither fraught with hidden meanings nor filled with sweeping, universal truths. Rawlings’ microcosm is neatly contained and manageable.
The first portion of The Yearling sets up necessary relationships and establishes essential conflicts between Penny and Ora, Jody and Ora, the Baxters and the Forresters, and the Huttos and the Forresters. This business attended to, Rawlings gets to the heart of her story, which begins when Penny—out with Jody in quest of Old Slewfoot, a bear that has been devastating the area—is bitten by a rattlesnake. He faces imminent death if drastic action is not taken. In desperation, Penny shoots a doe, rips open its abdomen, and removes the warm liver, which he places on the snakebite to draw out the toxin. Doc Wilson, when he comes to treat Penny, confirms that by this action, Penny saved his life. Jody returns to where Penny was bitten and finds the fawn of the doe that his father shot. He brings it home, names it Flag, and, contrary to his mother’s wishes, raises it. Flag requires food and milk, scarce commodities in the Baxter household.
As Flag reaches the yearling stage, however, the situation becomes grave. The deer roots in the Baxter’s garden, destroying crops on which the Baxters are depending for their living. A crisis is inevitable, but Jody tries to forestall it by building a fence around the garden and replanting. His efforts are to no avail. Flag is able to leap over the fence and continue the damage. Finally, Ora, never a good shot, fires at the marauding Flag, wounding the animal badly. Jody has no alternative but to end Flag’s suffering by firing a fatal bullet into the wounded deer. This act, more than anything else in the story, marks Jody’s coming-of-age.
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...
(The entire section is 2,185 words.)