WRITING fiction for adults about a child in a child’s world is a delicately difficult literary undertaking. Too many writers attempt it. Most of them fail. Perhaps a major reason for the failures is that most such stories either are frankly autobiographical or become so despite the author’s desperate struggles. Leaning wistfully back into the mind, and person of the child he thinks he was, the writer produces a character made up of his own hurts and nostalgias, of impossibly mature and knowing afterthoughts, of his sad desire to think that, had not life so strangely buffeted him, he would have been all the great and beautiful things his infant self must surely have contained. The results are usually garbled amateur psychiatric tracts, and very rarely literature.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings has succeeded where so many have failed, and The Yearling is a distinguished book. Her Jody Baxter lives, a person in himself, within the boundaries of his own years and his own world. One-third intuition, onethird knowledge, one-third perception, the boy moves through the Florida river country, and the chronicle of his year is unforgettably written. The Baxters scratch subsistence from an ‘island’ clearing in the swamps. Jody sees those swamps, the animals that live in them, the dry weather and the flood weeks, the flicker in the grass which is a snake and the rustle in the woods which is a bear, without self-consciousness, naked of legend.
Even a Thoreau cannot report on the world outdoors as a child might. The naturalist sees only those things which concern his informed eye. To a child the barn and the woodshed are as much a part of the natural workable landscape as the lizard under the log. Mrs. Rawlings has done a small miracle in that she knows this, never stops to interpret, never once steps outside Jody’s perceptions, never mars her great skill by pausing to explain. She has captured a child’s time sense, in which everything lasts forever and the change of season takes him always unawares.
The year of Jody’s life which The Yearling gives us is the one during which the boy passes from childhood to adolescence. One spring, when the book opens, he builds himself a fluttermill, which is a wonder and a secret delight. The next spring, when the book closes, he builds himself a fluttermill, and sees it only as a foolish ‘play-dolly’ from which he can draw no comfort for his growing pains. During that year he has owned the pet his loneliness craved for, has adored and sheltered it, and seen it killed by the just and inexorable law of the poor, who dare not harbor any luxury which threatens their slender food supply. The boy’s feeling for his fawn is as superbly understood a piece of writing as any animal-human relationship in literature.
The Yearling is never sentimental, never mawkish. Set in a period shortly after the Civil War, in a little-known part of the United States, it gets its effects without documentation or quaintness. The sort of Americans with whom the book deals would be as easy in the presence of Boone, Lincoln, or Mark Twain as they would be abashed by William Faulkner’s tortured characters. Jody’s parents and their neighbors are realists. Food is where you grow and hunt it, water where you dig it, God in individual behavior. The book smells of sweat and wind, rain and parching corn, wood fires and herb brews, courage and clean despair. It is as American as the Mississippi. And it is emphatically not this month’s ‘great American novel.’ It is a fine and quiet book, to be read and read again, standing for un hysterical judgment on its own earth-planted feet.