“The sun was sinking into the saw-grass. The marsh was golden. The whooping cranes were washed with gold. The far hammocks were black. Darkness came to the lily pads, and the water blackened. The cranes were whiter than any clouds, or any white bloom of oleander or of lily. Without warning, they took flight.”
– The Yearling, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
I read The Yearling once as a kid, when I loved boy-and-nature coming of age stories like The Pond and Rascal. It went over my head. I remember fleeting scenes: the day swelteringly hot, humid, tense, and a dark rattlesnake coiled on a dusty footpath uncurls faster than a flicked whip and strikes. I remember there’s a deer but I also remember being disappointed that it doesn’t appear until halfway through the novel, and the whole first half is incredible slow-paced. I remember the ending was sad, but not why.
The things I notice as an adult are very different. The book is still slow, but it’s because it’s dense, has a lot of meat to it, and you have to stop and digest every few pages. The language isn’t pretty or flourishy, but it’s simple and vivid. Complex ideas are handled the whole time without ever being directly confronted, so the quotable lines are few and far between.
The story is set in north Florida, post-civil war, and I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel set in Florida that so well captures the character of its landscape. The sea is barely in the story at all, but the book still calls up that part of the country effortlessly, naming its native botany with a skill now mostly lost. My parents grew up in north Florida, and I lived there until I was eight, so the names of trees and flowers, the descriptions of soil and storm, added to the feeling of lost innocence, an eden that cannot be reclaimed, that the whole novel evokes. The boy Jody, the central character, is an only child, about 11 or 12 when the book begins. He lives on a subsistence farm that is barely making out. He’s spoiled by his father and ignored or scolded by his mother, and their family’s isolation gives him a sort of existential loneliness.
It’s fascinating and troubling to read about a time when you literally had to kill something in order to eat, and that primal struggle to survive draws forward a lot of raw ideas that hurt to touch, especially if you’ve been raised without farming or hunting or death really being a part of your life. Jody loves animals and hates killing them, but he also recognizes that if his family doesn’t hunt they won’t have enough to eat. Even if they were able to subsist on a vegetarian diet, the farm is being constantly threatened by predators that also have to be killed. Bears and wolves attack their milk cow, and foxes steal their corn. And yet Jody and his father love living on their isolated farm in large part because it is so wild. Even though they have to fight for their lives every minute, they find time for wonder and awe. In one section, tormented by wolves killing all their livestock, they set out with their neighbors to intentionally kill every wolf in north Florida (I hadn’t even known there ever were wolves in north Florida, if that tells you how successful/common this type of hunt was). Months later, they see a single limping wolf sneak into the yard of the house to play by moonlight with one of their dogs. They watch in wonder from the window. “Hit’s almost certain the last one,” says Jody’s father. “Pore thing, hurt and lonesome– Come visiting’ its nighest kin to pick a play.” That aching sense of self-inflicted, inevitable loss pervades the whole novel.
I was an ardent conservationist as a child, and maybe that’s why I didn’t love this book the first time I read it. It presents harshly the real struggle for resources between people and animals, and to some extent, between people and people. I remember feeling shocked at Jody’s constant confrontation with death. Rawlings captures in a golden haze that time when you have become unselfish enough to truly love but do not yet believe in loss, and it cannot be fully appreciated as a novel until you have crossed that threshold yourself. People who love nature, like Jody and his father, do not want to see it as the vicious, brutal, mysterious, complex balance it really is, and that vision, repeated in different ways throughout the book, is what finally brings Jody into adulthood.
Read it for the history of north Florida, for respect for a way of life that is gone like the wolves and panthers from our landscape. Read for the tears you shed on the cusp of your own first heartbreaks and betrayals, and read it to keep that innocence and wonder alive inside you, no matter how useless and crippling it may sometimes seem.