*Draw back the curtain, dusty and threadbare, to my childhood, and you’ll see a kid propped with a book as often as anything else. We had the first color TV in our neighborhood, a modern wonder that everyone came to watch, me gloating over the regal status of our family. A tiny in-ground swimming pool in our backyard cooled us each afternoon while everyone else traipsed to community pools to escape New Jersey’s blistering summers. I threatened all my limbs racing a bike over the uneven landscape of sidewalk slates erupted by the roots of saplings planted fifty years earlier, now grown to jungle size. My childhood also included an excess of torment, from events I won’t describe or attribute.
At night when my jelly jar beamed with lightning bugs signaling for release, when the attic creaked its rotted beams and Jack Parr entertained adult viewers with his suave, nasal humor on late night TV, I lay in bed with a book and entered worlds more fierce and tragic, heroic and dangerous, romantic and exotic than my own. The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Johnny Tremain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Little Women, Black Beauty, The Borrowers, Heidi, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Twenty-One Balloons, A Little Princess, The Swiss Family Robinson, Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates, The Secret Garden, Pollyanna, The Railway Children – all these and more captivated me and kept me up hours past bedtime. They gave me insight to the difficult lives of others. They gave me courage, come morning, to tackle another day. One book was so special I bought a copy for my grandson years before he could read it.
The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, is about Jody, a youngster who lives in the Florida back country with his parents and his orphaned pet fawn, Flag. Life is harsh and hard scrabble shortly after the end of the Civil War. Every grain of corn is a hedge between mere hunger and flat out starvation, every encounter with nature a potential threat to existence, every neighbor an adversary with their own desperate circumstances to overcome. Jody adores his indulgent pa, his remote ma, his sensitive, crippled friend, and Flag. Flag grows up to become a healthy, ravenous buck and a threat to the family’s tenuous grasp on sufficient sustenance for the following year, forcing Jody to make an unthinkable decision. He must sacrifice the thing he loves most to save his family, his first act of manhood.
The Yearling clutched at my heart like no other book. It was first of all much longer than anything I’d read by at least a hundred pages. Rawlings believed I could read a book this long, that I had the stamina to maintain attention for a sustained period. She trusted that I had the intelligence to keep tabs on a large cast of characters, some so ingratiating I still love them, some despicable, all of them original and unforgettable. She engaged me with a complex plot and a sense of language so identifiable that I learned to speak nineteenth century Floridian with the best of the swamp dwellers.
More than that, Rawlings threw me a life raft. All the stories I’d read and loved told tales of people, usually children, surviving unlikely odds, but The Yearling treated me like an adult. (In fact, she wrote a book. It has come to be considered a young adult book.) Her dollar words and profound ideas made me think about the issues that motivate people to endure the impossible. The story gave me insight into how to navigate the unpredictable and sometimes violent swamp of my childhood. It showed me a way to identify the currents beneath my own strange family issues and swim to the surface. I couldn’t understand Jody’s ma, and I couldn’t understand my own mother. And the book made me want to write like Rawlings.
What did a New Jersey kid know about the wilds of the Louisiana or Florida swamps, the vastness of the American prairie, or even the poverty of the downtown Trenton Black neighborhoods? Not much. Didn’t stop me from writing about them. My stories became populated with folks who had Southern drawls or Western twangs and lived in foul places built more of imagination than any reference to real locales. What did an eleven-year-old know about restrictive social impositions on the other side of town that made it impossible for a man to care for his family or for a woman to walk downtown proudly? Hardly a thing. Didn’t stop me from creating them. My characters faced unjust tribulations and resolved them with courage and invention even if the events were outrageous and the outcomes impossible. I didn’t even flinch from occasionally letting a protagonist die. Melodrama was my forte.
My teachers encouraged me, if only because I used lots of adverbs and adjectives and fashioned strange names for my characters. I won a few school awards and fleeting acknowledgement. My parents applauded my effort though I’m pretty sure they never read anything I wrote.
No matter. In the far dark corner of my room sat the spirit of a little woman with a stern face who waited patiently while I put down my stories in longhand. My hero, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, prodded me to write. Decades ago and long interrupted in my adulthood but now restarted, I wrote stories. I wrote first for children, stories about overcoming injustice and facing down heartache. Now I write for adults, stories about the complex relationships between people against the background of momentous historical events. They’re about people who confront savage or mysterious circumstances and overcome personal failure to find a way to triumph. It’s what happened to Jody. I try to engage readers as much as Rawlings engaged me. I hope that people find solace in my stories for what can’t be described or attributed in their lives.
The Yearling won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
What childhood book stays with you?
I look forward to learning about your favorite Y fiction books.
*Note: This article was first published (with slight differences) on Ink Flare in 2013. Though I intended to assign a different book review to Y, The Yearling has had such major impact on my life as a person and a writer, that I realized this is the only book that would reflect my passion for storytelling.
Other books that were serious contenders for Y:
The Ya-Ya Sisterhood (series) by Rebecca Wells
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris
Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Seuss
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon
Book cover image courtesy Google images and Charles Scribner’s Sons
Comments on: "Y is for The Yearling" (20)
Oh my goodness, read ‘The Yearling’ so many years ago. Rather partial to Yertle. 🙂
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Oh yes, the turtle. Dr. Seuss gets it right in every story. Yertle seems to have contemporary implications, doesn’t it?
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I don’t think I ever read The Yearling. I enjoyed reading your discussion about it. I think the books that stayed with me a long time were The Little House on the Prairie books. I’m pretty sure I worked my way through the series three times.
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I read one of the Little House books when I was teaching elementary kids – I wanted to be in touch with the books they enjoyed. It was a very endearing book.
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I wonder if kids are still reading them.
The Little House books? Yes, they are, but there are so many other books vying for attention – not to mention video games, movies, etc. My granddaughter has the entire series but I’m not sure if she’s read them yet – I’ll have to ask her.
Well, at least it’s good to know some kids might still be reading the series.
It’s good to know kids are still reading – anything.
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I’m not sure I’ve read The Yearling. Maybe I’ve just read about it enough that it feels like I have. Or its possible reading your review has me wishing I had read it. Either way, I love the memories this post provoked.
Psst. I loved the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. A great summer read.
Audrey, you may have seen the movie though it was made in the 1940’s. If so, that would be why you remember it. It was a heart tugging film but the book is far more complex.
You are still fashioning strange names for characters and using $10.00 words (inflation). I THINK i read the Yearling, i know i read all the Little House, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and now i read Dr. Zeuss, almost exclusively.
Judy, I can see you crawling into bed with a Dr. Seuss book or two and laughing yourself to sleep. He’s a terrific writer which I why I had to mention Yertle on my list. Besides, I never read Seuss until I was an adult.
Such a wonderful classic, Shari. Thanks for the memory.
I’m so glad you liked this book also, Jacqui.
I have never read this, but of course, heard about it! Excellent review, Sharon. I really need to catch up on the classics! I was fixated on horses as a kid and read Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. I also read a LOT of comic books as a kid, LOL!
I read Misty as an adult when I was writing children’s books and read them as well. Lovely story, perfect for little girls in love with horses.
My favorite childhood book ( I’m using this as in a book I read whilst young) is A Separate Peace by John Knowles. I remember being floored at how much I embraced the character of Phineas. It was the first book that really moved me. You’re such a joy! You just reminded me that I should re-read The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood! I recall loving it, and this was before I tried my own hand at writing a novel. Reading a book goes down differently, once you try your own hand! Wonderful post!
Thank you for your supportive comments, Claire. You are right – we all think we’re writers until we try to write. Then we learn what skill is required.
A beautiful tender review of a book I’ve never heard of…I can see why it spoke to your heart, head and spirit! How wonderful that this was the inspiration for your own writing. The Hobbit was a favourite as young as well as Children of the Oregan Trail. I also still have hard leather bound copies of Little Women amongst others. Wishing you a lovely weekend,
Sharon filled with many happy hours of reading/writing if possible! 😀❤️
Leather bound books – what a treat, especially if they are older versions! I collect autographed books but am running out of space to save everything I love.
I’m hoping to write and read as well, but this weekend ended up being over scheduled – next week, the time is mine, I declare!
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