Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘The Yearling’

Y is for The Yearling

 

*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

 

 

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V is for Vice and Villains

images

Every story must have an antagonist who makes the life of the main character, the protagonist, as miserable and dangerous as possible. You’d think this would be such an easy character to craft: just imagine the most odious monster or the sickest loser and write him or her into your story. Story needs conflict – a sharp rock on the path, a venomous bite without antitoxin, a trap with no key, and a reprobate who fabricates all the obstacles to the final resolution.

Enter the Villain.

Consider the woman who cooks dog food to serve her guests. Pat Conroy used that idea in The Prince of Tides, when Lila, angry with her husband’s complaints about dinner, returns to the kitchen, dumps a can of dog food into a frying pan, stirs in a few other ingredients, and serves the concoction to Henry Wingo’s booming praise. But wait, nasty as that act of revenge might be, Lila is not the villain here. Henry is. Maybe not as bad as Vlad the Impaler, but he’s aggressive, controlling, violent, cruel, and intolerant toward his family. His family lives in poverty because he’s such a fool at business, like when he buys a tiger. Conroy’s memorable story tracks the father’s unrelenting, abusive behavior as it ruins the lives of several of his kids, and of how Tom Wingo, now an adult, tries to save his suicidal twin, Savannah. What makes Henry Wingo such a compelling villain is that he considers himself, a World War II bomber, to be hero and defender of the nation. He thinks he’s building strong adults of his kids, and he’ll never believe proof to the contrary. Conroy captures the nuances of the South, of dysfunctional families, and of the search for personal identity like no one else. If you haven’t yet read this book, skip all other responsibilities for the next few days and devote yourself to reading the work of a masterful storyteller.

Think about the town strumpet, eager for a tumble into the hay with any male, no matter how devoted to his spouse he may seem. She does appear in Gone Girl, but she isn’t the book’s true villain, she’s just a poor-sweet-innocent-young thing. Strumpet is a distraction to hubby. Amy, the missing, presumed-dead wife of Nick Dunne in the book by Gillian Flynn, is the victim through the first part of the story, a perfect wife who devotes herself to supporting her husband. Nick’s reserved behavior sets him up as the likely perpetrator of Amy’s murder, (husband first, the usual suspect) and while everyone searches for her body, his quirky self-defense plunges him deeper into suspicion.  And he did have that affair with Strumpet. By the second part of the story, readers know Amy is entirely the antagonist, a manipulative sociopathic villain brilliant enough to fool everyone, murder without remorse, and hold her husband hostage to a vise like definition of loyalty and love. Lest you fear that Amy is one-dimensional in her evilness, you’ll have to remember her parents. The authors of a series of classic children’s books based on their daughter’s life, it’s clear they love her only for the income her childhood plights provided them. One of the many facile writing devices of the story is Flynn’s ability to portray believable unreliable narrators, a skill quickly turned to sawdust in the hands of less talented authors. When you finish reading Prince, lock your door and start on Gone Girl. No matter how much you think I’ve revealed, the story will stun you.

Imagine a filthy, backwoods, carousing lout of a man, ready to fight for – well, just ready to fight. Some people identify Lem Forrester, one of the drunken brothers in The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, as the villain of the story. He starts fights over petty issues, is never fair, steals everything in and out of sight, and burns down a neighbor’s house. Not much to recommend him, but I still think the real villain of the story is Poverty. Young Jody Baxter is enchanted by the beautiful Florida woods where his parents have built a cabin shortly after the Civil War. But the family lives in abject poverty as does every other family in the woods. The land doesn’t lend itself to easy farming, game is scarce, and though the place is verdant, not much that grows is edible. Limited economic resources mean almost no medical care, and hardly any food unless the inhabitants can grow it, hunt it, or scavenge it for themselves. Sickness and accidents are likely to result in death, pregnancy in stillbirth, meager crops in gnawing hunger. Poverty, indifferent to the goodness or meanness of people, is the stifling caul that forces absolute equality of horrific circumstances for every individual. Poverty demands that Jody choose between the life of the beloved fawn he’s raised as a pet and the welfare of his family.  Even Lem Forrester is nothing but a frayed vine to Poverty’s steadfast noose on the people of the community. The Yearling is the very first adult book I read a second time as soon as I finished the first reading. It’s the book that made the young Sharon Bonin want to be a writer.

A story must tell of turmoil: internal or external, mystical or historical. Nothing worth noting happens if a villain doesn’t emerge from his den, claws poised for attack, teeth bared for the bite, his body of might and power far greater than the main character can muster. The main character must fight back, overcome, and win the ultimate battle, or die trying. If your main character cannot be the hero of the tale, what’s there to tell?

 

Image courtesy of genxpose.blogspot.com, from Google.com, public domain images, villains

The Yearling and the Young Writer

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. An 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 50 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, 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’ve already bought a copy for my young grandson, years before he can 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 adopted orphaned fawn. Life is harsh and hard scrabble, every grain of corn 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 the fawn, 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.

It gripped me like no other book. It was first of all much longer than anything I’d read by at least 100 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 despicable, some so ingratiating that I still love them, 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 19th 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 try 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 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 11-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 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 sat 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 but now restarted, I began to write stories. I wrote first for children; now I write for adults. My stories are 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.

What childhood book stays with you?

Book cover image courtesy Charles Scribner’s Sons