Book Review: The Yearling

Rating: ★★★★☆

The Yearling is a masterfully written, Pulitzer prize-winning novel about a backwoods family in post-Civil War Florida.  Jody, the child of Penny and Ory, adopts an orphaned fawn, naming it Flag.  Flag provides the central theme of the story, as Jody’s friendship with the animal comes to represent his childhood innocence.  At the end of the story, when Flag is destroyed, Jody painfully comes of age and assumes responsibility for his family.

The family’s struggle to survive and thrive in a hostile environment is masterfully told, and the reader experiences the pain of their many setbacks, rejoicing with their victories, and eagerly anticipating the events of the unfolding story.  It well deserves the awards it earned.

Unfortunately, the novel reflects an unbiblical view of childhood that consists of innocent play and the pursuit of natural impulses, and this makes the story fit only for mature readers.  Implicit in this view is the sentiment that adult responsibility is an unpleasant necessity to be resisted as long as possible, rather than a good to be pursued.  This perspective is expressed in the behavior of Jody’s father Penny who, while expressing tenderness and warmth toward him, fails to discipline him for repeated disobedience.  Instead he indulges his immature impulses toward laziness and selfishness, and shields him from the punishment his mother is inclined to administer.  He reasons that there is plenty of time to learn responsibility, and that Jody ought to have the opportunity to enjoy his childhood.

The tenderness of the father toward his son is moving, but his overindulgence endangers the entire family and brings to mind Proverbs 13:34: “Whoever spares the rod hates his son,but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.”  Rather than protecting his son from the real consequences of laziness and self-centeredness and training him to work hard and care for others, he waits until Jody’s cumulative foolish choices threaten not only Jody’s life but the entire family’s.   This poor parenting hinges on the explicit assumption that when the child becomes a man his sense of joy and wonder will have to be put aside: “‘Leave him kick up his heels,’ Penny thought, ‘and run away [from his work].  Leave him build his flutter-mills.  The day’ll come, he’ll not even care to.” (21).  Near the end of the story, the boy does in fact make a flutter-mill toy and places it in the water, but on looking at it discovers that he can no longer take pleasure in it.

Jody’s mother, in contrast, relates to him coldly and often with anger, and while she does oppose his childish impulses it is not clear that she is acting for his good.  In the climax of the story, the half-domesticated yearling deer begins to destroy the family’s primary food source.  Penny tells Jody to kill it, and when he refuses, he distracts his son so that his wife can do it.  She shoots it, but does not succeed in killing it and Jody is forced to finish the task.  This experience is very painful and comes as a tremendous shock after a lifetime of indulgence.

Contrast this scene with the coming-of-age scene in Old Yeller, in which Travis’s mother offers to destroy the rabies-infected dog who has saved their lives.  Instead of resisting this painful task, the young man courageously does his duty, and is subsequently commended and comforted by his father upon his homecoming.  Jody refuses to do what is necessary until forced, and then he responds to his parents’ appropriate action with passionate anger and runs away from home, returning only when driven by hunger.  At this point, he accepts the necessity of his parents’ action and is forgiven by his father for his rebellion.

It is the circumstances of their hardscrabble life which finally force reality upon the child, rather than the loving discipline of his father.  Rather than preparing his son to live in their difficult environment, he actually shields the boy from the consequences of his decisions, leaving him unprepared to deal with the necessity of destroying his deer when it happens.

The scriptural standard for coming of age may be drawn from 1 Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways”.  This passage speaks about growing up as gaining a fuller life by leaving foolishness behind.  Maturity and responsibility are worth striving for, and they bring joy rather than extinguishing it.  The worldview reflected in The Yearling contradicts this principle. For discerning older readers it ought to be useful as a discussion of worldview, but parents ought to be aware that the best-told stories are the most convincing, and if introduced too early it may appeal to all the wrong instincts.

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Publication Information: Rawlings, Marjorie. Yearling, The. Wyeth, N.C.. . 1938. ISBN: 0020449313.
Categories: 4 Stars, Age 08-12, Book Tree, Books Children Love,, Honey For a Child's Heart, NEH Summertime Favorites, World Nifty 50
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Posted on April 19, 2009

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