The Yearling is winning me over, in a number of respects, so this post will focus primarily on the positives (since my last two posts have emphasized my criticisms/concerns about Rawlings’ novel). The book has managed to put together some powerful scenes—the above quotation arises out of the tense and painful experience that creates the opportunity for little Jody to get his baby deer friend. I think Rawlings manages the tension pretty well on a child’s level—what it’s like when a parent is injured (and maybe dying, or even dead), and how the world looks to a kid. After being relatively uneventful for its first few chapters, the story is now managing to bring a little variety to the reading experience, and I’m engaging more often with the characters’ actions and decisions.
Overall, Rawlings’ strength is still setting—she’s gotten really good at using her somewhat limited vocabulary (limited by choice, I expect, and with her audience in mind) to paint images of the Florida swamps and prairies, and the creatures who live there. The details of the isolated rural life of a Floridian in this era are here—the elaborate system used to get clean drinking water, the dependence all families have on their few close neighbors, the fear of what will happen if the crops fail just once. The anxieties and the relationship to land, water, and weather are not as clear or as deeply explored as in Now in November, but that’s a very high bar to clear, and Rawlings gets closer to it than any other author I’ve read yet. I get pretty immersed in these details, though there’s a repetitiveness to the imagery as we return to the same places over and over, and see some of the same sights. For the right reader, I think this would be magical—for me, it’s merely very good, and the aspect of the writing I can praise most highly.
High marks should also be given, though, for how well Rawlings is using dialect—a common recurring complaint here at Following Pulitzer, as you veterans know, since so many authors use it so badly in the first half of the 20th century. She manages to get real conversations, and insightful comments, expressed in the humble backwoods vernacular, without bailing out (as so many authors have done) to a 3rd person narrator who can steer us past the shoals without being limited by idiom. This is most evident in a eulogy offered by Jody’s father, Penny Baxter, for one of their neighbors—a very simple prayer, and yet very moving, that expresses a lot of emotional ground (and heals some wounds between the neighbor families) while staying very true to the “swamp talk” the characters speak. There are some nice little moments between Penny and his wife, too, and those also generally occur in dialect. It’s a simple thing, but it’s so rarely gotten right that it really does deserve mention.
This is not to say that I have no complaints at all—the book’s exploration of Jody’s emotional life (and the impact of the often tragic events surrounding him) remains too limited for me. At times I am reminded of the stark simplicity (and the beauty) of some passages from Thornton Wilder’s Bridge of San Luis Rey, but these moments are occasional, rather than consistent. I have some qualms about the book’s use of (and attitudes about) gender, which I intend to address in a later post if they persist, and I’d like to talk a bit more about what does and doesn’t work for me regarding Rawlings’ style as a writer of prose. But overall the read is now definitely on the positive side of the “entertaining/boring” dichotomy, if only just. I have my concerns about how Jody and his little deer will get along over the next section of the book, and based on the novel thus far and the essential dynamic of a boy and his “wild creature for a pet”, I kind of expect an unfairly emotionally manipulative denouement. However, I can hardly complain about it until it happens—the complaints will be loud and long if it should come to pass.
One side complaint that has nothing to do with Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and everything to do with Scribners, the publisher of the particular volume in my hands: the illustrations are placed terribly. Not only are they the Sunday School feltboard quality images I criticized in my initial post—they appear to have been inserted into the book where they could most easily be bound (between signatures, I think, though I can’t tell exactly how it’s bound). For this reason, some images appear well in advance of their occurrence in the text, and some appear well afterwards. This is bad enough on the face of it, but unfortunately Wyeth uses the illustrations to reveal critically important plot developments. I’m reading along, as Jody hears his friend X is sick, and he’s thinking of going to visit friend X, and then I turn a page and there’s an illustration of people carrying a coffin (above a caption that reads “The Burial of X”)—this is 10-15 pages before X’s death is revealed. I don’t mind knowing a bit about a book’s plot before I read it—if it’s good anyway, no amount of “spoilers” can make it not good. But I do mind having plot points spoiled literally while I am reading the book, about 15 minutes before it’s revealed. It’s one thing to know before you start reading that the wizard is going to die; it’s a very different thing not to know that, and to have the book announce it to you unexpectedly in bright colors about a chapter before he does. Again, this isn’t a criticism of the novel at all—just me expressing frustration at my special illustrated edition that was clearly put together with no real care or interest. Oh, publishers, when will you learn to respect your readers?