“Merciful Heaven, don’t you ever think o’ nothin’ but your empty belly?”

Mrs. Baxter’s more right than wrong about Jody—he does also think about how to get out of his chores, and how it’s fun (and scary) to hunt for bears, and occasionally about how much fun it would be to own a wild animal for a pet, but food is definitely tops on his list, as far as I can tell.  The most exciting moment in many chapters seems to be dinnertime, which may tell you all you need to know about how happy I am with this novel.

I know it’s been quiet here for a little while, but it’s because I’m having trouble mustering up much to say about The Yearling.  It’s a sweet enough book, of course—the little family is close but not cloying (well, not too cloying), and there are a lot of pleasant little moments with the flora and fauna of central Florida.  It seems a fairly comforting world to grow up in, with just enough danger to make you feel a little excited now and then.  I am reminded, at this point, of Wilson Rawls’s Where the Red Fern Grows, which I read many times as a kid despite its intensely sad ending.  I sort of imagine I’m in for the same story here—isn’t every story about a child and his unlikely animal friends destined to end in parting and sorrow?  Heck, even Christopher Robin walks out on the folks in the Hundred Acre Wood.  I guess what I’m saying is, if the title character (who has yet to show up in the book) makes it to the age of two (a bi-yearling?) without abandoning Jody in a puddle of tears, I’ll be surprised.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of the novel ...

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who (bless her heart) looks as excited in this photograph as I feel while reading her Pulitzer-winning novel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Other than waiting for a deer to show up, is there anything else at work in the story?  I don’t see much yet.  Mr. Baxter’s a little canny—sharp as a hunter, and a clever trader, though the trick he plays on the Forresters is the oldest swindle in the book.  I think Methuselah would have called it “hackneyed”.  I don’t see what to do with that, though.  There’s definitely a contrast between the Forresters and the Baxters, but it’s not clear to me that it will be developed much—I get the sense that both families have a sort of condescension in their assessment of the standing of the other family, and I feel like this has to do with wealth on the one hand, and “class” on the other.  But the book is working with such broad strokes that I don’t really know what it would explore if it decided to go there.

I’ll credit Rawlings with some ability to work with setting—she is superior to the descriptions of farm life executed by Edna Ferber and Willa Cather (to say nothing of the miles by which she exceeds the dismal talents of Margaret Wilson), but I can’t put her ahead of the evocative work done by Josephine Johnson in Now in November.  Beyond that, though, I don’t really know what to latch onto with this book, since the characters are fairly two-dimensional (with the possible exception of Jody) and the plot is unexciting.  Her skill with language is neither embarassingly bad nor quotably good.  I’ve seen (much) worse hands at the use of dialect, but I’d be lying if I suggested that I didn’t think the dialect was working as a hindrance more than a help.  At this point, I’m reading the children’s book I was expecting—calm and even, pleasantly nostalgic, and awfully forgettable.  I can’t see that the introduction of the yearling to the story will do anything other than provide a plot device that allows this coming-of-age story’s main character to come of age.  There are probably other twists ahead, and enough of them (or enough added depth on Rawlings’s part) might make a legitimate novel of this thing.  But without that kind of intervention, I feel mostly like I’ll be trudging dutifully through this one, pacified by its occasional charms but essentially uninterested—like watching an episode of Lassie in which the dog never shows up (but Timmy makes it out of the well somehow without too much incident).

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2 comments on ““Merciful Heaven, don’t you ever think o’ nothin’ but your empty belly?”

  1. SilverSeason says:

    I should revisit this book. Any memories I have of reading it years ago are overlaid by images from the movie. For all I know, the movie was better. I did enjoy Rawlings’ Cross Creek about her life in Florida, a life without beaches or Disney.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I’d be happy for another insight into the book—a friend who read it as a child has very fond memories of the book (and I think I’d also have fond memories if I read it as a child). I’m still walking the tight-rope I alluded to at the outset, regarding how to evaluate what is essentially a book for ten year olds in the same way that I evaluate adult novels. I can’t work out what’s reasonable and what’s not. 🙂

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