“The Yearling” Not a Homerun

(…continued from last week)

I broke the cardinal rule for how to run a successful book discussion (NEVER SUGGEST A BOOK YOU HAVEN’T READ YOURSELF!!!) when I tried to orchestrate one last month with my kids and their spouses.

I chose “The Yearling” by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings for several reasons. First, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1939. Second, I’d always thought of it as a young adult novel and hoped that perhaps my grandkids might like to read it when they get a little older, especially once they learn how much their parents liked it. Third, I love old Florida. “The Yearling” is set in the Jacksonville area shortly after the Civil War.

So, even though I’d never read it, it seemed like the perfect choice.

From the back cover, here’s what the novel is about: “When young Jody adopts an orphaned fawn he calls Flag, he makes it part of his family and his best friend. But life in the Florida backwoods is harsh, and so, as his family fights off wolves, bears, and even alligators and finds failure in their tenuous subsistence farming, Jody must finally part with his dear animal friend.”

Six out of seven of us got hold of a “real” copy (not an e-book) of “The Yearling.” All, including me, expressed some surprise and dismay that the book is 509 pages long. Even with a friendly font and generous margins, that’s a lot of reading, especially for thirty-somethings who all have full-time jobs and little kids to take care of. The good news is that nobody said no. I could hardly wait for the Saturday morning when we’d take our coffee and donuts out to the porch and have what I was sure would be the first of many lively family book discussions.

That’s not what happened.

None of my own children had finished reading “The Yearling.” Son was about a hundred pages in. Neither daughter—English majors, both of them–had read past the first couple of chapters. Worse than that, they weren’t ashamed to admit it. “We’re not coming to book club,” they told me. “And you can’t make us.” The son-in-law who’s not much of a fiction fan hadn’t even been warned that there was going to be a book discussion. That left only three of us—son-in-law Matt and daughter-in-law Natalie and me—out on the porch.

We agreed that the novel has some flaws. Though Rawlings’s descriptions of north Florida’s flora and fauna are breathtakingly beautiful, they often go on too long. The overuse of dialect, a device you rarely see these days in literature for good reason, is exhausting. And the part of the story where Jody finally gets the pet he’s always longed for is a long time in coming. The good news is that there’s plenty of excitement before Flag enters the picture. And the author’s storytelling skills are phenomenal.

Though “The Yearling” is a coming-of-age story, I doubt that many readers younger than high school would be enthusiastic about tackling it. But mature readers who enjoy stories about rattlesnakes and raccoons and fistfights and floods and plowing with a mule and building a split-rail fence and matching wits with a marauding bear named Old Slewfoot are likely to enjoy this classic novel.

I did. It’s a beautiful story about love and loss, heartbreak and hope. Fingers crossed that my family members who didn’t come through will give “The Yearling” another chance. If they don’t want to read it, perhaps they’ll watch the wonderful 1946 movie starring Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman. And then maybe they’ll want to watch the equally wonderful 1983 movie “Cross Creek,” which tells the story of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

This I know for sure. If and when our family book club meets again, I won’t be the one who chooses what we read.

(July 31, 2021)