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An image of the bookcover for The Yearling


The Yearling (1938)


Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her writing

Some novelists are inspired by characters or action; Rawlings was inspired by place. Once she discovered the Florida backwoods, she immediately moved there. Calling Cross Creek, the “land of heart’s desire,” Rawlings used it for the literary setting of most of her novels.1 Her writing focuses on poor, backcountry Floridians (called “crackers”).

All her work explores the need to be in harmony with the environment. She is especially interested in its effect on character.

Rawlings earned 3 literary doctorates for her work. She wrote 4 novels, numerous short stories, and an autobiographical work, but nothing measured up to the incredible success of The Yearling.

Introduction to the story

The Yearling remained on the best-seller lists for months after it was published. Translated into thirteen languages, it is the only children’s novel to have won the distinguished Pulitzer Prize.

The Yearling was not written or marketed as a children’s book. The book’s 400-page length, sad ending, and theme of death were major reasons for an adult, rather than child audience in the 1930s.

Rawlings lived with a family in an area known as the Big Scrub for a couple of months in order to write The Yearling with first-hand knowledge of the people and their environment.2

The Yearling is a poignant story of a boy who faces increasing challenges in the Florida backwoods. As an only child in an isolated rural environment, Jody is delighted when his mother allows him to keep a pet fawn. At the end of the novel, he is forced to kill his beloved pet.

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Opening chapter

The opening chapter in many great children’s novels reflects the action of the novel in miniature, preparing the reader for what will follow. In The Yearling, Jody wanders off to his favourite place – a glen – enjoying the April afternoon rather than doing his chores. His father completes Jody’s tasks, protecting him from his mother’s anger. Jody’s father tries to insulate his son from the cruelties of the world but this becomes increasingly difficult as the novel progresses.

The glen that Jody visits is described as a version of the Garden of Eden. The novel traces Jody’s fall from innocence as he enters the adult world. Later Jody encounters a literal snake in the garden, one that almost kills his father.
In children’s literature, the fall from innocent childhood and initiation into the adult world is often patterned after the Biblical fall.

The title

Titles of classic books are always carefully chosen. When Jody asks his father how Flag will change once he becomes a yearling, Penny replies, “He’ll be betwixt and between. He’ll be like a person standing on the state line. He’ll be leavin’ one and turnin’ into t’other.”3 As a 12-year-old, Jody is also at the customary threshold between childhood and adulthood.

In literature, a deer traditionally represents innocence. The movement of the book is away from innocence as Jody leaves his childhood behind.

Organizing patterns in the novel

Hunters versus the hunted

The novel is organized around a series of alternating chapters, five hunting and five hunted ones. Old Slewfoot, the rattlesnake, and a pack of wolves attack the Baxters or their animals. Penny, Jody, and the Forresters hunt wild life for their livelihood.

Death

Jody is introduced to death as his initiation into adulthood. He learns how to face death in incremental stages.

  1. When Old Slewfoot kills the family pig, Jody experiences its effect on the family.
  2. Death’s impact moves closer to home when Jody’s father almost dies from a rattlesnake bite.
  3. The actual death of his friend Fodder-Wing is a shocking experience for Jody.
  4. All these experiences prepare him for the death of his beloved yearling, a death that is a traumatic turning point in his life. The death of the yearling signals the death of Jody’s childhood.
  5. This in turn prepares Jody for the inevitable death of his father. Jody accepts the fact that he must now take over his father’s role.

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Intertwining of life and death

The cycle of life and death is closely interwoven in the novel. The near death of Jody’s father occurs at the beginning of his relationship with the fawn. Likewise, Ory goes looking for new seed after the death of Flag. Not surprisingly the novel traces the cycle of one year. The novel ends with spring following winter as a time of rebirth and renewal.

The setting of the novel

The Baxters live in the midst of the scrub – an infertile area of low shrubs and stunted trees. Yet the house is situated on a small island of pines within this scrub. The Baxters have managed to carve a small piece of civilization out of the midst of the wilderness. Ma insists on standards, on the family raising themselves above the level of the backwoods. Life is difficult in the backwoods but they manage to find significance and meaning in it.

Facing the world alone

For years Jody feels very protected by his father and insulated from the cruelty of the outside world: “He could not help but feel a greater security here beside his father, than in the stormy night.  Many things, he realized, would be terrible alone that were not terrible when he was with Penny.”4 

But as Jody grows up, he learns to face life’s difficulties on his own. The hard-won wisdom of the father is summed up in Penny’s final words to his son: “A man’s heart aches, seein’ his young uns face the world. . . . But ever’ man’s lonesome. What’s he to do then? What’s he to do when he gets knocked down? Why, take it for his share and go on.”5

Notes

1. Gordon L. Bigelow, Frontier Eden: The Literary Career of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (Gainsville, FL: University of Florida Press, 1966), 2-3.

2. Bigelow, Frontier Eden, 15.

3. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, The Yearling (1938; New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967), 380.

4. Rawlings, The Yearling, 158.

5. Rawlings, The Yearling, 426.