Chapter 54: “The Yearling” by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1939)

“He lay down beside the fawn. He put one arm across its neck. It did not seem to him that he could ever be lonely again.”

The Yearling, the 1939 Pulitzer-winning novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, is one of those books that you can’t help but adore. A tale of boyhood and family and coming of age that embodies everything that was still pure and sacred during this era of literature. The shift to Postmodernism hadn’t yet occurred (it wasn’t too far off, though) and Modernism was slowly coming to a halt—in this novel, Rawlings takes all of the lessons learned from the moderns (death, tragedy, man being doomed by his own devices) and feverishly scrambles to turn all of that on its head with a romantic, crystallizing moment.

However, for all her attempts to right the wrongs she commits over the course of the novel, Rawlings fails and so becomes another victim of Modernism’s crushing blow.

A pretty extreme narrative for a novel that was meant to be read by fifth-graders.

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This is the story of a boy who adopts a fawn, raises it and nurtures it, only to have to put it down in a tragic and senseless fashion; it’s essentially almost like the plot of Old Yeller, but possibly even sadder. In Old Yeller, the boy is forced to put down his dog because the dog comes down with rabies and becomes dangerous; in The Yearling, the boy is forced to put down his deer (more like, put it out of its misery) because his mother shoots it and mortally wounds it.

What!?

These are simple folk – farmers living out in the woods that have to hunt and grow crops to survive. So when a horrendous flood destroys everything and they are forced to ration what little food they have more and more, the boy’s mother gets incredibly testy about the fact that this deer is eating their corn. So, of course, she shoots it. She doesn’t tell the boy to release it into the wild, she doesn’t tell the boy that he has to take care of it himself—she just shoots it.

The death of Flag, the deer, doesn’t come as too much of a surprise; whether it’s Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, The Yearling, etc., that’s just the Order of Things in these sorts of novels, whether they’re written for middle-school-aged children or not. Unlike the former books, however, Flag’s demise is every bit pointless as it is tragic.

In most books like this one, the animal has to die for a reason—the animal’s death is a metaphor; the boy’s pet has to die so that the boy’s responsibility, virtuosity, acceptance of life and death, or whatever may come alive.

In The Yearling, Flag dies because Fate has decided it. That’s it. It’s vicious, it’s unjustified, it’s cruel, it’s inhumane. The only thing that Flag dies for is the fact that life isn’t fair—this deer’s demise didn’t mean anything; it only symbolizes unavoidable despair and heartache.

And maybe that’s the lesson that Rawlings wants the reader to take away from this novel. That life is unjust and cruel. And that’s fine. But to tarnish an otherwise perfect rendering of an innocent little boy’s love for his pet with a tragic ending? It’s cowardly of Rawlings and unfair to the reader.

While this may be ending that Rawlings wanted, she certainly doesn’t earn it.

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The boy runs away from home, obviously. Can’t stand the sight of his mother after that.

While he’s away, he really falls on hard times—he had no idea how good he had it at home until he ended up hungry and penniless in the streets with no friends or family to help take care of him. It’s almost like the story of the Prodigal Son, in a way.

So he returns home after a while to find that his family could really use his help. So he “mans up” and takes on the responsibility of taking care of the farm, the estate, and his parents.

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I am very pleasantly surprised at how much I was enjoying The Yearling. In fact, I was destining it to be included in The Pulitzer Project’s “Diamonds in the Rough” category. I really wasn’t looking forward to reading it—nothing about it piqued my interest—but I really, really enjoyed it.

Having said that, I am even more surprised at how infuriated I became towards the end of this book, when Jody is forced to put down his beloved fawn. And I’m even more disgruntled and nauseated by the Hallmark card, picture-perfect ending that Rawlings so ignorantly and hastily tags onto the end of the book. It was cheap and ineffectual.

Like putting a Band-Aid on a severely open laceration.

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It may just be because of my personal family history; it may be because of my tenuous (and currently terminated) relationship with my own mother; it may be because of my staunch beliefs in animal welfare, conservation, and protection; but no other book in this Pulitzer Project—indeed, in my entire personal library—made me this upset.

I actually yelled out, “What!?” when it happened.

Then, when Jody decides to return home to take care of his family… It was very emotionally confusing. I didn’t know how to feel. While I can respect his decision to take responsibility of his parents, his parents aren’t his responsibility; and while I can respect his decision to run away from home and look out for himself, he does have some sort of moral obligations to home and kin.

This is what I know—in my own way, I tried to take responsibility for my family for many, many years. I acted as a go-between my mother and father after their divorce, often getting stuck in the middle of messy, messy fights; I defended my mother’s honor on countless occasions; I was quick to forgive the innumerable offenses that she committed against me. I was the responsible one, even as a child.

Finally, this year, I decided that enough was enough and washed my hands clean of all the bad blood. As awful as I feel about cutting my ties to her simply for the sake that she’s my mother, I feel very good about my future now. I no longer have to worry about her begging me for money to help pay her lawyer bills; I no longer have to worry about getting an earful on the phone anytime she’s upset with somebody; I no longer have to worry about her being an influence on my children (when that day comes).

I made the decision to better my future.

So to see Jody bend and snap so willfully in this novel… It was heartbreaking.

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One thing that I found particularly interesting (and particularly objectionable) in this novel was the portrayal of the genders. For a woman, it sure doesn’t seem like Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings has much respect for women—at least in this work. Nearly every woman (specifically, his mother) is awful.

We see from the outset that Jody is hellbent on becoming a “MAN.” Not just a man, but a man that is a replication of his father’s mold. He idolizes his father, nearly worships him. His mother—not so much. And for good reason, I might add.

Throughout the course of the novel, his mother dampers everything. All she does is gripe and complain and manipulate—to the point that she carries out a detestable act.

Of course, even in the end, there’s only one parent that matters to Jody; only one that he apologizes to for running away; only one that he wants to have any sort of relationship with—his mother, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be as much of an important, well-written character as she does an awful obstruction to Jody’s happiness.

At the same time, Jody’s father, Penny, isn’t that much more of a likeable character—he’s every bit as manipulating as his wife! His manipulation, though, is much more of mind-screw to poor Jody. He knows how much Jody looks up to him, which makes it that much easier for him to completely take advantage of his son, manipulate his son, and destroy any hope for happiness that his son may have. At one point, he outright tells Jody that, at any point, he could leave the farm for a life of wealth and happiness, but implores him to stay home, to eek out a living on a subsistence farm that will quite obviously fail and eventually fill his father’s shoes.

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In the end, the reader is left with a young boy who was put through the wringer, who is doomed to a life of discomfort, who is a victim of Fate. A boy whose demise will only prove to be broken and jaded as he forced to take up his father’s yoke of despair and his mother’s mantel of insecurity.

And that is something that I absolutely cannot forgive Rawlings for.

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