The Yearling has been, as you’ve seen, a bumpy ride. There are certainly things to praise about Rawlings’ novel—her use of setting, most critically, and also some of her character development. At its most winning, it’s an engrossing experience, walking me through a world I don’t particularly know (the swampy farmland outside of Volusia, Florida), and helping me understand an era of small subsistence farming that is important to remember. The storm and its aftermath are probably the best section of the book for me, since they really bring home how hard it is to live where the Baxters do, and how inventive and enterprising they have to be just to keep food on their table. Those moments certainly help me understand why many people loved this book when it came out—it wasn’t just a Pulitzer winner, but a major best-seller—and why some still read it and recommend it to others today.
But the other side of The Yearling gets to be too much for me. I’ve already talked about my uneasiness with how Rawlings uses gender in the novel. The end of the story does a little to redeem it, especially when we see Ma Baxter in a slightly new light in the events around Christmas (as well as Grandma Hutto’s canny solution to a very serious problem). But it also perpetuates the ideas about women that persist throughout the novel. In the end, there’s only one parent that matters to Jody Baxter—only one whose betrayal really stings, only one who he need apologize to, only one relationship that really matters in any way as far as this novel is concerned. As I said before, I get that there’s a lot of accuracy in Rawlings’s portrayal of Jody as a boy fixated on becoming a man, and on being a man like his father. I just wanted a novel that knew Jody’s vision was blinkered. And instead I got a novel that did its best to portray a world that was in reality what Jody thought it was from his perspective. I’ve read enough Pulitzer novels by now to know that I’m not asking for too much there. But I will say that other great novels of the era do have gender issues. I think Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is really excellent, but I could lay the same charges about gender at its feet that I do at The Yearling‘s. Am I being a hypocrite, then? Maybe. Or maybe it’s that A) Steinbeck’s novel has more interesting and important things to say (when it’s not talking about gender) than Rawlings’s novel does, and B) Steinbeck’s novel is not aimed at fifth graders. Anyway, I’m willing to be swayed on this point, and willing to acknowledge that I see how a reader could work around this objection.
I’ll try not to give away much about the ending, but my real hatred of how Rawlings ends the book is a major factor in my souring on it overall. It’s no shock to anyone, I hope, that Jody’s beloved pet deer is doomed—this, as I said at the outset, is how these novels go. Because I was expecting it, and understood it was necessary on some level, it’s not the death in particular that I object to. It’s how manipulative and cruel the whole scenario is. Rawlings devises one of the worst possible outcomes—in doing so, she has to sideline characters and make other characters fools for the sake of getting the most gut-wrenchingly agonizing ending she can. The whole plot machinery squeals and grinds as she wrenches the novel into MAKE-THEM-WEEP mode. And unlike other stories in this genre—Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, etc.—the animal’s death doesn’t even mean something. There wasn’t something like love or hope at the heart of this sadness. Only unalterable Fate; unavoidable Despair.
In the end, if everything Rawlings and her characters say is accurate, Jody’s beloved father is a fiend—a man who, out of the desire to be kind, has proven more cruel and psychologically damaging to his son than many a lesser father might have. Furthermore, the moral he wants his son to walk away with—and, given the novel’s structure and Penny’s place in it, the moral that Rawlings surely is trying to inculcate—is a vicious one: in Penny Baxter’s universe, humanity is alone and frightened. We toil in desperation and solitude; we cannot trust one another or the ground we walk on; the sooner a child learns that life is empty, the better. I understand how a man like Penny might reach these conclusions, and how a novelist might want to explore these powerful ideas, but coming at the end of an otherwise cheerful little nostalgic tale about an innocent boy and his love for a pet, it’s really unfair to the reader, and unjustified. Rawlings may want this ending, but she hasn’t earned it. Penny Baxter shifts from being Atticus Finch to being one of the slavers of Astapor, forging in naive and trusting Jody his little Unsullied warrior who will serve him well. He explicitly acknowledges that Jody can escape the unendurable (and ultimately unsurvivable) subsistence farm the family lives on, and then makes his son promise not to flee for a better life, but to stay here in his abandonment and his loneliness in order to fill his father’s shoes. As I said, I don’t mind the dead deer. It’s casting the boy into a living hell that I mind. Rawlings’s cheap sentiment at the end of the novel, which seems like an attempt to bandage the open wound of having read the final chapters, is almost nauseating. It mocks the idea of happiness, and it reminds us how badly the ending suits the novel we have been reading.
So I’m left with a novel that’s well written on the sentence level, although not always well-constructed. On the one hand it makes characters we enjoy and want to spend time with, and on the other it uses those characters to undermine any reasonable treatment of women in the novel. It’s sweet and nostalgic, right up to the point where it becomes almost bizarre in its efforts to shock and harm us—in doing so, it perpetrates consequences on Jody Baxter that I can’t forgive. There’s no reason a novel can’t be dark, even dark and great—ask me about Mary Doria Russell and The Sparrow sometime—but you have to earn it, and Rawlings doesn’t.
As a part of the whole, this really does a great job of getting inside the world of the struggling farm in the Deep South—its misses (the authentic experience of women on the farm) are notable, but so are its hits. It is less vivid than Now in November, and less sweeping (and sympathetic to women’s stories) than Lamb in His Bosom, but taken in conjunction with them, I found a lot of it to be really interesting and insightful. There are pieces I wish Rawlings had done more with—Southern identity in the post-war period (Penny is a Confederate veteran, but we hear little about this), their connection to the wider world (other than a little about “going to sea” and some speculation about Jacksonville, they feel too isolated, even given their circumstances)—but overall this is definitely the side of the novel that should get high marks. She cares about these bygone days, and wants us to care about them too—she largely succeeds.
According to the unscientific rating scale in use here, this gets a “Read only if forearmed against its weaknesses…and whatever you do, don’t put this in a child’s hands.” If you go into this book ready to interrogate its relationship to gender, and prepared to fight back against the conclusion it tries to present, there’s a worthwhile read locked inside it. I’m not recommending you do this. But I can see people enjoying this book, under those circumstances. The one thing I have to emphasize, though, is that I really don’t think you should have a child read this—really, not even if you have nostalgic memories of this from your own childhood. Our kids get enough “man=good, woman=bad” messages from our culture and media, and there are plenty of great stories that avoid that problem entirely—no shortage of other options there. And whatever you want your child to grow up believing about humanity and purpose, I’d urge you not to blind-side them with this book’s ending. It’s not that the deer dies, like I said above—animals die in kids’ books, and it generally doesn’t scar them. But the author booby-traps this novel—the final message is utterly enervating without being consistent with the story we’ve read, and it blows up any possibility for hope. A kid can read plenty of books that explore dark or serious themes while avoiding what Rawlings does here.
The Last Word:
Rawlings’s work with setting is lovely, so I’ll let her take us out that way. This passage is from late in the book, but there’s lots of this throughout—here’s the opening of a new chapter:
“March came in with a cool and sunny splendor. The yellow jessamine bloomed late and covered the fences and filled the clearing with its sweetness. The peach trees blossomed, and the wild plums. The redbirds sang all day, and when they had done with their song in the evening, the mockingbirds continued. The ground doves nested and cooed one to another and walked about the sand of the clearing like shadows bobbing.
Penny said, ‘If I was dead, I’d set up and take notice, a day like this ‘un.’
There had been a light shower during the night and the hazy substance of the sunrise indicated there would be another before night. But the morning itself was luminous.”