I’ve been working my way through my Pulitzer Project for almost ten years now. I break it down into manageable goals — this year I’m focusing on the winners for the years ending in 9 — which also forces me to at least acknowledge the existence of some of my ugh titles (although it might take me another few decades to crack open the damn remaining Updike title).
The Yearling was one of those books I was dreading. Not because I considered it to be in the same gross misogynist category as Updike, but because from the title alone I already knew how the book was going to play out and I was not down. It’s a book that seems to have always had, through its numerous printings, a tragically dated book cover (for real: do a Google image search) that screams “sad coming-of-age story.”
And it is a sad coming-of-age story, one that I knew I’d probably like but had to work myself up to á la Call of the Wild. Because animals.
The book takes place in Florida shortly after the Civil War. Jody Baxter lives with his parents on Baxter Island, not the name of an actual island but a homesteaded scrap of backwoods that the family has claimed for themselves. Jody is a much-loved only child; all of the other Baxter children died young. His only real friend is Fodder-wing Forrester, a disabled boy roughly the same age who lives miles away; his parents allow him to keep a collection of animals as pets. The Forresters are a rough and tumble, quick-tempered bunch. They, along with the Baxters, survive off farming and hunting. All are at the mercy of the elements.
Save for a handful of plot twists, the monotonous, hardscrabble daily routine of life is a constant throughout the book. Staying fed and alive, and planning ahead to subsist through winter, is the priority; laziness could quite literally lead to starvation.
The three Baxters make a modest living. Jody, still a boy, likes to take off and play whenever he gets the chance. He reveres his hard-working father but is a lonely child and would love one pet, something his mother refuses, as it would take up resources. In a sudden turn of events, Jody finally gets his chance to adopt an orphaned fawn and the two become inseparable. To Jody, little Flag is the brother he never had.
Like many youth-centered books of its time, The Yearling has clear moralistic underpinnings. It captures a different time and place, and as Jody inches his way towards manhood he begins to understand the importance of his responsibilities. His yearling plays an important role, but ultimately, it’s a book about a father trying to teach his son complex life lessons.
And yes. It’ll probably make you cry.
The Yearling was originally published in 1938 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939. I listened to the audiobook version.
Goodreads (free ebook download available)
Publisher/Year: Recorded Books, Inc., 2012
Narrator: Tom Stechschulte
Length: 13 hours, 58 minutes