The Yearling – enduring lit or horror show?

All right, you’ve caught me.  I took a short break from memoirs to read a novel.  Reading fiction helps me to come back to memoirs with fresh eyes. Fiction or non-fiction, the reader wants a gripping story and fine writing. And so I like to dip into the “classics” now and again, to see why some books endure.

The Yearling, by American writer Marjorie (great name) Kinnan Rawlings, was published in 1938. It is considered a resonant work of literature, along the lines of Black Beauty or The Grapes of Wrath.  I choose these two books deliberately, because one illustrates the unspeakable cruelty man visits upon beast, and the other, the unspeakable cruelty poverty visits upon man. The Yearling speaks to both these subjects.

And more. Set in the woods of inland Florida, the novel is a tender song to the untender wilds of the southern state. The protagonist is Jody Baxter, who lives with his family, father Penny Baxter and mother, Ora Baxter. The Baxters  share their lives with working and farm animals – hunting dogs, a horse, a cow – and spend their lives killing animals:  panthers, bears, wolves, squirrels, deer, possums, rattlesnakes, alligators and more. They do this primarily to eat, though their nearest neighbours, the Forrestors, kill animals as much for pleasure as sustenance or safety.

Dispatchings aside, Penny respects animals and teaches his son to respect them too. Jody’s respect, however, tips over into love. A lonely only child, Jody longs for companionship beyond the parental circle. And so he adopts, with his father’s permission, an orphan fawn. Flag the fawn becomes the centre of his life.

In truth, I was uneasy from that moment on. How could there possibly be a happy ending when a wild creature shares its life with those who, among other incompatibilities, regularly kill its brethren? Add to this the propensity for deer to eat anything a gardener might grow, and you can already hear Ora Baxter screaming as she chases Flag out of their life-sustaining acreage.

I loved Kinnan Rawlings’ writing and I loved the use of dialogue to make a particular people and a particular time and place real. I also loved the experience of reading about a people, time and place I knew little to nothing about. How wonderful to have that experience as a 51-year-old, inveterate reader!

But by the end, I felt oddly betrayed by the book and, of course, its creator. I felt betrayed because I wanted to believe that at heart, the novel was a love story between a man and his son. And yes, there is a generous love shared between the two males. Penny Baxter,  a small, decent man, who “studies” (thinks on) the natural world, understands many of its complex movements, and retains a life-long fascination for the equally complex world of wild animals.   Jody Baxter, his much-loved boy, who is learning the way of men – or at least the way of hard-scrabble country men, who live to hunt and hunt to live.  But the harshness of survival makes puny and irrelevant the love father and son give one another.

The moment of betrayal comes in the form of a father asking a son to kill the almost-equivalent of a flesh-and-blood sibling, Jody’s beloved fawn Flag. I could barely believe the words I read. No, I thought, this is out of character, he wouldn’t ask Jody to do this. Then it gets worse, in how exactly the fawn does meet his death. I’ll spare you details. I actually choked on my tears. The betrayal was epic.

In fairness, Kinnan Rawlings leaves not one loose end. The reader comes to understand Penny’s behaviour in a profound, if still deeply sad, way. The reader also comes to understand that the betrayal actually occurred the second Penny gave his approval for Jody to adopt the fawn, not when he asks him to shoot it. Penny Baxter knew better.

And yet the desire to bring pleasure to a loved one is irresistible:

[Penny said:} “I’ve wanted life to be easy for you. Easier’n ’twas for me. A man’s heart aches, seein’ his young uns face the world. Knowin’ they got to git their guts tore out, the way his was tore. I wanted to spare you, long as I could. I wanted you to frolic with your yearlin’. I knowed the lonesomeness he eased for you. But ever’ man’s lonesome. What’s he to do then? What’s he to do when he gits knocked down? Why, take it for his share and go on.”

Take it for his share and go on. Killer book. Enduring literature or horror show? For me, both. Not everyone has the connection to animals that I do, though. All the same, I like to think that any sensitive reader would be moved by this honest and layered story of a family who loves, loses, and goes on, as all families must.

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