Today we are featuring a Looking Back post by Diane Bailey Foote. Diane is Curator of the Butler Children's Literature Center at Dominican University in River Forest, IL. Thank you, Diane!
|Original cover of The Yearling.
"Let me talk to you a little bit before you read this," said my dad when I was about nine years old. He handed me a paperback copy of The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, which had been published in 1938, and had won a Pulitzer Prize, although that distinction was lost on fourth-grade me in 1976. "You're going to read language in here that isn't correct. I want you to know this isn't the way I expect you to read and write, but I don't want you to look down on the people who speak this way in this book. This is the way they learned to speak at that time." Of course, he was referring as much to relatively innocuous vernacular dialogue spoken by the poor, rural White Floridians such as "That's what I figgered," "sich as that," or "Them that steals offen us;" as he was to flat-out racist terms such as "Injuns," or saying in criticism that someone has "a heart as black as midnight."
Of course, this really is how the people in the book would have spoken at the time and place it was set. Unfortunately, when a narrator uses objectionable language, even a 1930s narrator, it is somehow harder to accept than when such terms are spoken by a book's characters. For example, in describing a pet raccoon, the narration reads: "A tiny black paw, like a n*****’s baby's hand, reached out." Seriously!? I honestly don't remember how I reacted to this kind of sentence at age nine, but reading it today makes me angry, because it's so unnecessary and mars what is otherwise an enduring work of writing that is both critically acclaimed and popular. I recognize now that my nine-year-old White self was privileged to just kind of blow past that; for kids who may have been called that name, it wouldn't have been so easy. It's especially jarring, because this very scene, in which main character Jody's friend Fodder-wing is introduced, is remarkable in its ahead-of-its-time treatment of a person with a physical disability. Fodder-wing, the youngest son in the large Forrester family, neighbors to Jody's family, was born with a "hunch-backed frame" and people think he's "witless." But Jody, the main character with whom readers sympathize and identify, sees and values him for who he really is: a kind boy and a gentle friend to people and animals.
|Internal illustration by N. C. Wyeth, "Jody and Flag"
The storyline itself remains compelling and, for the most part, exquisitely written, today. Jody Baxter is an only child living in an isolated setting; his family's cabin is located on what was called "Baxter's Island," not a true island but a clearing in the scrub. It is a harsh life, with constant struggle for survival against starvation, illness, and predatory animals; it is also beautiful, with Jody finding joy in nature when he can sneak away from his endless chores. His "Ma" is not overly warm or maternal; his father, known as "Penny" both for his small stature and for being "sound as copper itself; and with something, too, of the copper's softness." Jody longs for companionship and befriends a young fawn after Penny, bitten by a poisonous snake, kills its mother to use her flesh to draw out the poison. Jody grows up over the course of the episodic story; he wrestles with a number of ethical situations, from having to kill animals for food, to conflicting loyalties among the other people in the scrub and in town who must rely on one another in hard times. He also learns to cope with death, fear, and loss; Penny is gravely injured more than once, and in one of the more tear-inducing scenes (which is saying something in this book) he finds out his friend Fodder-wing has died. All of this leads up to the time when he must do the unthinkable or his family will starve: His beloved fawn, now a yearling he's named Flag, can't be trained to not eat the corn crop, and manages to escape from every enclosure Jody builds. The end of Flag's life marks the end of Jody's childhood. In a powerful ending, "He did not believe he should ever again love anything, man or woman or his own child, as he had loved the yearling. …Somewhere beyond the sink-hole, past the magnolia, under the live oaks, a boy and a yearling ran side by side, and were gone forever." The language is evocative and unflinching, balancing the haunting beauty of the Florida backcountry setting with the harshness of the lives of the people in the scrub.
The Yearling has felt like an old friend itself to me for much of my life, but I'm angry at it today. Angry because so much of it is so remarkable, but it is tainted by the legacy of racism that may have been more common at the time of its writing, yet sadly persists. I won't be sharing this with young readers; I might share it with older (teen) readers, but would take the same care my own father did with me, with perhaps some more explicit discussion about the language as spoken and written here, and by whom.