Jessica's Reviews > The Yearling

The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
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's review
Jun 18, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: 2012
Read from June 03 to 17, 2012

The Yearling bills itself as a story about a boy (Jody Baxter) and his pet deer, but it's really not. This book is a love letter to a landscape & its inhabitants, in this case the Florida scrub (temperate coniferous forests & marsh/swamplands, according to Wikipedia) and the people who farmed, hunted, trapped, and traded there in the years following the First World War. The depth and breadth of Rawling's knowledge of the biome is evident on every single page (Every. Single. Page). Her encyclopedic descriptions of flora & fauna might wear on some readers, but I enjoyed it. If you stick with it through the "dull" parts it eventually pays off in some incredibly evocative passages. I often felt like I was right there among the evergreens & gators myself.

In addition to the landscape & wildlife, the characters are deeply realized and complex. Rawlings is very, very good at "show, don't tell" w/r/t the humans in her book. She manages to allow each individual to fully develop, even while being seen through the eyes of a child, with a child's imperfect understanding of adult motivations. Her characters are portrayed with sympathy & understanding, even when they behave in objectively awful ways. Her tone remains documentary throughout - recording honestly & completely without passing judgment.

The documentary aspect of the novel allowed me to get past some pretty shocking misogyny on Jody's part. He refers to women as, "Coming in breeds, like dogs," literally says at one point that women don't belong anywhere except in the kitchen, and just when you think he'll grow out of it and find himself a sweetheart (a local girl), he instead expresses a feeling of ownership of the girl, saying, "She was [mine] to do with what [I] wanted, whether that meant playing games with her or throwing potatoes at her." WHAT. But Rawlings spent decades among the people in that region, and the portraits are true. As immature and unpleasant as Jody's feelings on women are, it's clear his father is far more mature & loving, if only somewhat more enlightened. Jody's father, Ezra "Penny" Baxter was truly the standout character in the book for me. TEAM PENNY ALL THE WAY. (Ha.)

[Aside: there is an entire vein of "WHAT ABOUT THE WOMEN" to unpack here, but I'm not trying to write a term paper. Carry on.]

Anyhoo, as far as this being a story about a boy and his pet deer? For me, that plot was secondary AT BEST. There was a deer. It was occasionally mentioned, but it almost seems as if it was written in later as a "hook" to get people to read (like maybe stories of rural children & their implausible pets were the new hotness in 1939? Her editor might have been like, "No one wants to read a list of sh*t that lives in the scrub; add something cutesy"). I found the boy+deer plot somewhat distracting, and the ultimate denouement... well, Jody *was* a bit of a drama queen throughout the book, so I suppose it's in character. Still: shut up, Jody.

TL;DR: I think this book is beautiful, complex, and well worth reading. It is certainly deserving of the Pulitzer it won in 1939.

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