“I didn’t keer to praise you in front o’ the men, but you done noble.”

There’s a lot to like about The Yearling, as I mentioned in my last post.  The work Rawlings does with the setting—the anxieties and the poverty associated with subsistence farmers clinging to the high ground in the swamps and prairies of central Florida—is really very compelling, and many of the characters manage to be interesting enough (and on occasion, deep enough) to win me over to thinking this is a good book.  There’s a little fumbling with the story itself, as Rawlings can’t quite fit the pieces together beautifully—it’s like a pretty white gown whose seams have all been sewn in black thread.  Transitions are sometimes a bit ham-handed, and at other times she lets the tension drop in mid-air, as though the camera cut from Lassie leading Timmy’s parents well-ward to Timmy eating a bowl of breakfast cereal the following morning.  The book is large enough (and, honestly, contains enough filler) that there’s no need to pare back the endings of scenes like this, but it happens with some regularity.  Still, I’m bobbing along relatively smoothly: in most respects, this is a novel I’ll like well enough, but will probably not think much about once it’s set down.  There isn’t much to engage with, beyond nostalgia and a little vicarious thrill as Jody and his father experience some of the dangers of the natural world.  Generally speaking, though, it makes me happy as I read, and often that’s all we ask of a novel—I’m thinking on that ground alone, I’ll be giving this book a thumbs-up.  All of this is true.  Except it’s not really, and here’s why.

One major criticism I put off in my last post is the one I’d like to talk about here—Rawlings’ novel and its relationship to gender.  The book’s idea of femininity is weirdly strained, given that a woman wrote it…or maybe it’s not weird at all, given the ideas about gender that were prevalent in America circa 1939?  Perhaps some of my more informed readers will enlighten me.  Anyway, the book’s important characters are all men—the two families, the Baxters and the Forresters, seem to have only male children.  The mothers in these families have no names other than “Ma”, as far as I can tell, and they are not portrayed very compassionately.  The only other women in the story are another nameless woman, “Grandma Hutto”, who is praised by the male characters, as far as I can tell, for her masculine wit (and her very feminine charms), and Twink, a young woman over whom two men fight.  Jody, the lens through which the book’s events are seen, is constantly shaped to be more manly—even recognizing that this kind of gender stereotyping would have been common at that time, the novel never seems to think that women’s doings are important.  Jody’s father tells riveting stories that everyone longs to hear—the mother, when she tells a story, says something pointless and uninteresting (both to Jody and myself—Jody’s distaste for his mother is pretty evident in that chapter).  Jody leaves his mother whenever he can, and even when the three Baxters are together, it’s the two men against Ma—they tease her, they deceive her for their own amusement, they unify against her whenever she takes a stand.  On the one occasion that Ma disagrees with Jody’s father, Penny, and Jody agrees with his mother’s side of the argument….he still takes Penny’s side, yelling at his mother not to backtalk “his Pa” while secretly thinking that for once Penny was wrong (but that his mother shouldn’t say so).  When Jody’s friend dies, it’s the men in that family who mourn most openly, and whose loss is made most real—the friend’s mother is barely visible on the sidelines.  And Jody’s anger at the divisiveness over Twink leads him to think horrific thoughts about this young woman he’s never met—rather than feel anger at the men fighting over her, he literally soothes himself to sleep by daydreaming gleefully about her being lost in the wilderness, or eating the poisoned meat they set out in the wolf-traps and dying in fitful agony.

Cover of "The Able McLaughlins"

Anytime I have to clarify that a book is “not quite as bad as The Able McLaughlins“, you know we’re in deep water.

I have to say, I find all this unsettling.  It simmers in the background even when I am enjoying the rest of this story—although I am sure there are young women who grow up loving this story, I wouldn’t put it in the hands of my niece, let alone my daughter.  The messages about masculinity’s superiority to femininity in every way, and the Madonna/Whore complex the female characters seem to be locked into, are just too pervasive, and the rest of the tale isn’t redeeming enough.  This raises a fair question, I think—why would I give my nephews a book that sends this kind of  message about gender?  I shouldn’t, in honesty, and so I guess I’m reaching the conclusion that, for me, this book has a weird flaw that makes it hard for me to envision giving it to a child to read.  Rawlings isn’t relentlessly disgusting in her sexism—this isn’t a repeat of Margaret Wilson’s casual use of rape and emotional abuse in her “love story” at the heart of The Able McLaughlins—but I feel that it’s obviously here, and there’s no need for it.  Even Honey in the Horn ascribes more agency to women than this novel does; despite all its faults, Lamb in His Bosom believes above all in the value of telling the story of poor Southern women on subsistence farms.  I suspect that Rawlings is limited here by her lack of agility as a writer—it did not occur to her that the novel could reveal both Jody’s sexism (which would be inevitable, raised in the culture and time he is) and undercut it at the same time.  Stribling’s work in The Store was a great example of this, where the white characters express their racist ideas about the local African-Americans, but every line is subverted by the very simple details shared by the narrator at key moments about how the real world actually looks.  It wouldn’t be hard for me to understand how important “Ma Baxter” is to Jody despite his coldness to her.  It wouldn’t be hard for Rawlings to give these women names, and on occasion to let them make a very articulate speech on their own behalf.  It wouldn’t be hard to find a way to show me Twink in actuality, rather than leaving her to be described in the terms of the men who want to possess her (or, worse, who want her savaged or killed because she disrupts the bonhomie that would otherwise be enjoyed by the men living in the area).  Rawlings is clearly gifted as a story-teller.  Someone should have helped her become a better novelist.

These are harsh words, I know.  I’ve mulled them over extensively before feeling like I need to say them.  I don’t know how seriously these feelings sink my opinion of the novel—I’m in a bind a bit similar to Gone With the Wind, although I don’t think the charges against Rawlings’ novel are as serious as they were against Mitchell’s.  In the end, I’ll have to write a review that weighs all of these pieces and tries to make something of them.  I have a little hope that the end of the novel will reveal some things about Ma, or Twink, or another of the women in the novel, that help rehabilitate some of the worst sides of the book’s attitudes about women.  We’ll see if hope becomes reality.

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