Saturday, March 06, 2010

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' The Yearling

The other day my husband read a short story by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. The name Rawlings transported me to seventh grade English class, where my beloved teacher, Mrs. A., whom I've not thought of in years, had us read The Yearling, the 1939 Pulitzer winner. And though I didn't especially like it--my usual reading was Rebecca, or Harriet the Spy, or Catcher in the Rye--I read it addictively.

One day a book is a classic; the next minute it's forgotten. Odd how tastes change, isn't it? I've begun rereading it and am amazed that this gem got relegated to the children's shelf.

Was it good in seventh grade? Who knows? I loved the class: the only place where I could sit and read in the gigantic factory-architecture junior high (which my mother now informs me is attended by gun-slingers). It was a sanctuary. Mrs. A. always complimented me on my electric green miniskirt and op-art book bag and gave me A's on my essays.I was glued to The Yearling. It was beautifully written and its plot kept me going, but its sadness almost overwhelmed me. And it had one of the features I most hated in novels: dialect.

Oddly, now I find the dialect charming, and have a thrilling feeling (though I'm only 50 pages into it) that I'm rediscovering a lost classic.

"'Hey, ol' Ma,' he said at the door. 'I like you, Ma.'

"You and them hounds and all the rest o' the stock,' she said. 'Mighty lovin' on an empty belly.'"

It's one of those novels where the writing impresses me more than the plot. It's the story of a boy and his pet fawn, and like most pet stories, is tragic. The protagonist, Jody, lonely but resourceful, grows up in Florida in the late 19th century, the son of an intelligent backwoods farmer and a competent, loving farm wife. He makes "flutter mills" out of forked twigs and palmetto fronds, tracks a bear with his father, and adopts a fawn after his father kills the doe (for medicinal purposes: it's a long story). Naturally there is a conflict over the pet: and it's so sad that I can't even write about it here.

But I am very impressed by Rawlings' style.

"Daylight was showing through the east window of his small bedroom. He could not be certain whether it was the pale light that had awakened him, or the stirring of the chickens in the peach trees. He heard them fluttering one by one from their roost in the branches. The daylight lay in orange streaks. The pines beyond the clearing were still black against it. Now in April the sun was rising earlier. It could not be very late. It was good to awaken by himself before his mother called him."

Great, yes?

I found a fabulous copy at the library with the original illustrations by Edward Shenton. I'll have to keep my eyes out at book sales for a copy.

My feeling is that if you like Willa Cather, you'll probably like this novel.

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