Lately, I’ve been on a “young adult classics I never read as a young adult” kick. Think Peter Pan, A Wrinkle in Time (which…I really enjoyed, but thought would be more epic , maybe a la Harry Potter — please don’t judge :)) and, most recently, Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s The Yearling.
There is so much to immediately love about this book. In my Goodreads review, I mentioned it was like reading a Wendell Berry novel set in Florida, if for nothing else than the beautiful themes woven throughout: the honorable man is the one who respects nature and only takes what he needs while making sure to leave enough for future generations. A simple, hardworking lifestyle is praised above the freewheeling, carousing antics of other settlers. Family and home are islands of safety, and the people themselves, far from being depicted as backwards, mockable hillbillies (even when they’re literally prancing around naked before dawn, playing their fiddles and banjoes), are treated with the author’s respect and given a spirit of joy and sense of culture and purpose, even alongside their flaws.
And the prose! I knew I was in for a heart-wringer when I got to to this passage in the first chapter, after the 12-year-old protagonist returns from an afternoon’s romp in the woods:
“You’re addled,” she said. “Jest plain addled.”
It was true. He was addled with April. He was dizzy with Spring. He was as drunk as Lem Forrester on a Saturday night. His head was swimming with the strong brew made up of the sun and the air and the thin gray rain. The flutter mill had made him drunk, and the doe’s coming, and his father’s hiding his absence, and his mother’s making him a pone and laughing at him. He was stabbed with the candlelight inside the safe comfort of the cabin; with the moonlight around it. … He went to bed in a fever and could not sleep. A mark was on him from the day’s delight, so that all his life, when April was a thin green and the flavor of rain was on his tongue, an old wound would throb and a nostalgia would fill him for something he could not quite remember. A whippoorwill called across the bright night, and suddenly he was asleep.
I mean. I can’t even handle it; that ache is almost tangible as I read the words again. At the risk of spoilers, I will say that, as a coming of age novel, “addled with April” doesn’t last forever; innocence confronts death, in more than one context; and young Jody emerges the next spring as much more of a hardened young man than the lively “yearling” who slips away from his chores to play at the spring.
But the ending! (Definitely spoilers ahead :)) After a veritable Return of the Prodigal Son moment, Jody’s heroic father, Penny, delivers this final homily — and that’s how it came across to me, just downright cold and preachy — on the hardness of life:
“Ever’ man wants life to be a fine thing, and a easy. ‘Tis fine, boy, powerful fine, but ’tain’t easy. Life knocks a man down and he gits up and it knocks him down agin. I’ve been uneasy all my life. … A man’s heart aches, seein’ his young uns face the world. Knowin’ they got to git their guts tore out, the way his was tore. I wanted to spare you, long as I could. I wanted you to frolic with your yearlin’. I knowed the lonesomeness he eased for you. But ever’ man’s lonesome. What’s he to do then? What he to do when he gits knocked down? Why, take it for his share and go on.”
Jody goes to bed, thinking of his fawn — “He did not believe he should ever again love anything, man or woman or his own child, as he had loved the yearling. He would be lonely all his life. But a man took it for his share and went on.” (And then that last sentence of the book…oh, it is haunting.)
And as adults, I think we read that with two minds…on the one hand, we mourn the tragedy of his irretrievable loss of innocence. We empathize with Penny, wanting to shield his son from sorrow. And the mention of loneliness as almost the defining trait of the mark of death reminded me of John Paul II’s theology of the body, which considers loneliness in a twofold manner: first, man’s natural, “original solitude,” which points him irrevocably in the direction of companionship with God and others (and, oh, Jody’s “I must up and return to my father” moment nearly made me cry); and second, the loneliness that occurs because of man’s alienation from God. In Jody’s world, the swamp — as glorious and mysterious as it is — is marked by sin and death, and he feels the stab of loneliness acutely.
I digress. “He did not believe he should ever again love anything,” blahblahblah. Yeah. That can’t be true. Even Penny, who didn’t even marry his first love (and we get a glimpse of what could’ve been), treats Jody’s ornery mother with a tenderness that I found moving. And we know that Jody will most likely grow up, marry, have a family, and then more fully understand Penny’s love for him as he loves his own children. So I’m not sure if Rawlings is leaving us with an adolescent’s short-term view of things, or if the lesson really is, “You will never love again this perfectly, and you will never be fulfilled”?
Anyways. I’m really rambling. Suffice it to say, I thought it was a powerful book that totally took me by surprise. Also, there are fun mealtime scenes (squirrels and corn pone, anyone?) Do yourself a favor and read it, and then the next morning, after staying up until 11:30 to finish reading, listen to Andrew Peterson’s Ballad of Jody Baxter while silently choking up over dirty dishes in the kitchen sink. Except then you can’t even blame it on pregnancy hormones like me — ha!