Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ 1938 classic “The Yearling” tells of the small Baxter family living off land and animal in rural, forested Florida, long before today’s development, comforts, or conveniences. Around them are (mostly) amiable neighbors, the elements, a country doctor, the community of Volusia, and animal foes and friends, including the title character: Jody’s yearling deer.
Here are 15 of my favorite excerpts from the novel, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and considered to be Rawlings’ finest. Hope you enjoy them, too.
A spring as clear as well water bubbled up from nowhere in the sand. It was as though the banks cupped green leafy hands to hold it. There was a whirlpool where the water rose from the earth. Grains of sand boiled in it. Beyond the bank, the parent spring bubbled up at a higher level, cut itself a channel through white limestone and began to run rapidly down-hill to make a creek. The creek joined Lake George, Lake George was a part of the St. John’s River, the great river flowed northward and into the sea. It excited Jody to watch the beginning of the ocean. There were other beginnings, true, but this one was his own. He liked to think that no one came here but himself and the wild animals and the thirsty birds.
As he looked back over the years, he himself had had no boyhood. His own father had been a preacher, stern as the Old Testament God. The living had come, however, not from the Word, but from the small farm near Volusia on which he had raised a large family. He had taught them to read and write and to know the Scriptures, but all of them, from the time they could toddle behind him down the corn rows, carrying the sack of seed, had toiled until their small bones ached and their growing fingers cramped. Rations had been short and hookworm abundant. Penny had grown to maturity no bigger than a boy. His feet were small, his shoulders narrow, his ribs and hips jointed together in a continuous fragile framework. He had stood among the Forresters one day, like an ash sapling among giant oaks.
Lem Forrester looked down at him and said, “Why, you leetle ol’ penny-piece, you. You’re good money, a’right, but hit jest don’t come no smaller. Leetle ol’ Penny Baxter—”
The name had been his only one ever since. When he voted, he signed himself “Ezra Ezekial Baxter,” but when he paid his taxes, he was put down as “Penny Baxter” and made no protest. But he was a sound amalgam; sound as copper itself; and with something, too, of the copper’s softness. He leaned backward in his honesty, so that he was often a temptation to store-keepers and mill-owners and horse-traders. Store-keeper Boyles at Volusia, as honest as he, had once given him a dollar too much in change. His horse being lame, Penny had walked the long miles back again to return it. “The next time you came to trade would have done,” Boyles said.
“I know,” Penny answered him, “but ‘twa’n’t mine and I wouldn’t of wanted to die with it on me. Dead or alive, I only want what’s mine.”
“I wisht we could kill ’em all off,” Jody said. “Them that steals offen us and does us harm.”
“‘Tain’t stealin’, in a creetur. A creetur’s got his livin’ to make and he makes it the best way he kin. Same as us. Hit’s panther nature and wolf nature and bear nature to kill their meat. County lines is nothin’ to them, nor a man’s fences. How’s a creetur to know the land’s mine and paid for? How’s a bear to know I’m dependin’ on my hogs for my own rations? All he knows is, he’s hongry.”
Jody examined the deer hide. It was large and handsome, red with spring. The game seemed for him to be two different animals. On the chase, it was the quarry. He wanted only to see it fall. When it lay dead and bleeding, he was sickened and sorry. His heart ached over the mangled death. Then when it was cut into portions, and dried and salted and smoked; or boiled or baked or fried in the savory kitchen or roasted over the camp-fire, it was only meat, like bacon, and his mouth watered at its goodness. He wondered by what alchemy it was changed, so that what sickened him one hour, maddened him with hunger, the next. It seemed as though there were either two different animals or two different boys.
Jody glowed with a sense of virtue. He longed to be good and noble. He turned back of the counter to garner the reward of his character. He glanced up at a motion by the door. Boyles’ niece, Eulalie, stood gaping at him. He was flooded instantly with hate. He hated her because his father had teased him. He hated her hair, hanging in tight pig-tails. He hated her freckles, more lavish than his own. He hated her squirrel-teeth, her hands, her feet, and every bone in her lank body. He leaned over swiftly and picked a small potato from a sack and lifted it. She eyed him venomously. Slowly, she flickered her tongue at him like a garter snake. She clasped two fingers over her nose in a gesture of malodorous disgust. He hurled the potato. It struck her on the shoulder and she retreated with shrieks of anguish.
Penny said, “Why, Jody.”
Boyles advanced, frowning.
Penny said sternly, “Git right outen here. Mr. Boyles, he cain’t have the mouth organ.”
He went outside into the hot sunlight. He was humiliated. Yet if he had it to do over again, he would throw another potato at her, a larger one. When his business was done, Penny joined him.
He said, “I’m sorry you seed fit to shame me. Mebbe your Ma’s right. Mebbe you hadn’t ought to have no truck with the Forresters.”
Jody scuffled his feet in the sand.
“I don’t keer. I hate her.”
“I don’t know what to say. How on earth come you to do it?”
“I jest hate her. She made a face at me. She’s ugly.”
“Well, son, you cain’t go thru life chunkin’ things at all the ugly women you meet.”
“Fodder-wing! Hit’s Jody!”
The hound whined. A chair scraped on the board floor inside the house. Buck came to the door. He looked down at Jody and passed his hand over his mouth. His eyes were unseeing. It seemed to Jody that he must be drunk.
Jody faltered, “I come to see Fodder-wing. I come to show him my fawn.”
Buck shook his head as though he would shake away a bee that annoyed him, or his thoughts. He wiped his mouth again.
Jody said, “I come special.”
Buck said, “He’s dead.”
The words had no meaning. They were only two brown leaves that blew past him into the air. But a coldness followed their passing, and a numbness took him. He was confused.
He repeated, “I come to see him.”
“You come too late. I’d of fetched you, if there’d been time. There wasn’t time to fotch ol’ Doc. One minute he was breathin’. The next minute he jest wa’n’t. Like as if you blowed out a candle.”
Pa Forrester said, “Penny, you’ve had Christian raising. We’d be proud, did you say somethin’.”
Penny advanced to the grave and closed his eyes and lifted his face to the sunlight. The Forresters bowed their heads.
“Oh Lord. Almighty God. Hit ain’t for us ignorant mortals to say what’s right and what’s wrong. Was ary one of us to be a-doin’ of it, we’d not of brung this pore boy into the world a cripple, and his mind teched. We’d of brung him in straight and tall like his brothers, fitten to live and work and do. But in a way o’ speakin’, Lord, you done made it up to him. You give him a way with the wild creeturs. You give him a sort o’ wisdom, made him knowin’ and gentle. The birds come to him, and the varmints moved free about him, and like as not he could o’ takened a she wild-cat right in his pore twisted hands.
“Now you’ve done seed fit to take him where bein’ crookedy in mind or limb don’t matter. But Lord, hit pleasures us to think now you’ve done straightened out them legs and that pore bent back and them hands. Hit pleasures us to think on him, movin’ around as easy as ary one. And Lord, give him a few red-birds and mebbe a squirrel and a ‘coon and a ‘possum to keep him comp’ny, like he had here. All of us is somehow lonesome, and we know he’ll not be lonesome, do he have them leetle wild things around him, if it ain’t askin’ too much to put a few varmints in Heaven. Thy will be done. Amen.”
Water stood ankle-deep around the house. The blocks on which it rested showed that the water had at one time been over the floor. The boards of the broad veranda were warping. They waded to the front steps, eyes open warily for coiled moccasins. A white pillow-slip was tacked across the front door. A message was printed on it with ink. The ink had run but the letters were plain.
Buck said, “Us Forresters cain’t read good. Read it, Penny.”
Penny spelled out the liquid words.
“I have gone toward the ocean where this much water ain’t so peculiar. I mean to stay drunk until the storm is over. I will be somewhere between here and the ocean. Please don’t come after me unless it’s a broke neck or a baby. Doc.
P.S. If it’s a broke neck no use anyway.”
Stars twinkled, the first in nine days. Penny stirred at last to clean up the debris. He tossed the dogs the left-over corn-meal patties. He put the corncob stopper back in the bottle of fat. He held it up to the firelight. He shook it.
He said, “I’ll be blasted. We’ve et my rubbin’ medicine.”
He pawed in the crocus sack and brought out the other bottle and opened it. It held unmistakably the lard-oil.
“Mill-wheel, you jay-bird. You opened the panther oil for the swamp cabbage.”
There was silence. Jody felt his stomach turn over.
Mill-wheel said, “How’d I know ’twas panther oil?”
Buck swore under his breath. Then he burst into a thunderous laughter.
“I ain’t goin’ to let my imagination quarrel with what goes in my belly,” he said. “I never et better swamp cabbage.”
“Nor me,” Penny said. “But when my bones gits to achin’, I’ll wish ’twas back where it come from.”
Julia ran on ahead, eager, as all domestic animals, for home. Past the trail to the sink-hole, at the corner of the first fence-row, Julia lifted her nose and bayed.
Penny said, “Now there’d be nothin’ there in broad day-light.”
Julia was insistent and jumped the fence and stopped, her bay turned to a shrill barking. Rip, clumsy in bull-dog fashion, clambered over the fence that the hound had cleared lightly. He too barked fiercely.
Penny said, “Well, I know better than to question a good dog’s sense.”
He stopped the wagon and took up his gun and went with Jody over the fence to the dogs. A buck deer lay in the corner. It shook its head, making a menacing motion with its horns. Penny lifted his gun, then lowered it.
“Now that buck’s sick, too.”
He approached close and the deer did not move. Its tongue lolled. Julia and Rip were in a frenzy. They could not understand the refusal of live game either to run or to fight.
“No use to waste shot.”
He took his knife from its scabbard and went to the deer and slit its throat. It died with the quiet of a thing to whom death is only one short step beyond a present misery. He drove off the dogs and examined it carefully. Its tongue was black and swollen. Its eyes were red and watery. It was as thin as the dying wild-cat.
He said, “This is worse’n I figgered. A plague has hit the wild creeturs. Hit’s the black tongue.”
Penny took Grandma aside.
“I been worryin’ about Oliver,” he said. “Them big bullies ain’t drove him off ‘fore he was ready to go, have they?”
“It was me drove him off. I got tired o’ him traipsin’ off on the sly to see that gal. I said to him, ‘Oliver,’ I said, ‘you jest as good go on back to sea, for you ain’t a mite o’ good to me nor a mite o’ comfort.’ He said, ‘I ain’t a mite o’ good to myself. The sea’s the place for me.’ I never figgered the gal’d foller him.”
“You know Lem Forrester’s rarin’, don’t you? Do he ever come here drunk, remember he ain’t human when he gits to sulkin’. Ease him off the best you kin.”
“Now I shore as the devil won’t waste no time tootlin’ him. You know me better’n that. You know I’m made outen whalebone and hell.”
“Ain’t the whalebone gittin’ a mite limber?”
“‘Tis, but the hell’s hot as ever.”
“I cain’t keep stock here,” she said. “The ‘gators gits what the bears and panthers don’t.” She sighed. “A widder woman’s hard put to it, times.”
“Asa, here, don’t live with you?”
“No. He jest come back with me from Fort Gates, and he’s goin’ to the doin’s at the river with me tonight.”
“We was aimin’ to go, too, but I reckon we jest as good fergit it.” A thought struck him. “But now my wife’ll be there. You tell her you met up with us, so she’ll not be fretted.”
“You’re jest the kind, Ezra, would worry was his wife fretted. You never asked me, but I often figger I made a sorry out of it, not encouragin’ you.”
“And I reckon my wife figgers she made a sorry out of it, doin’ so.”
“None of us don’t never know what we want ’til it’s mebbe too late to git it.”
Penny was judiciously silent.
Buck said, “Now you-all he’p me git fixed. I’m aimin’ to scare the devil right outen that church buildin’.”
Lem and Mill-wheel draped the bear-skin over him. He got down on all fours. He could not get an effect realistic enough to suit him, for the hide, split down the belly, allowed the great heavy head to slide forward. Penny was impatient to be inside and to reassure Ma Baxter, but the Forresters were in no hurry. They donated two or three pairs of boot laces and laced the hide together across Buck’s chest. The result was all he could ask for. His bulky back and shoulders filled out the hide almost as completely as the original owner. He gave a trial growl. They crept up the steps of the church. Lem swung the door open to let Buck pass inside, then pulled it back, leaving a crack wide enough for the rest to watch through. It was a moment or two before the visitor was noticed. Buck swayed forward with so true an imitation of a bear’s rolling gait that Jody felt the hair crawl on the back of his neck. Buck growled. The assembled company turned. Buck halted. There was an instant of paralysis, then the church emptied through the windows as though a gale of wind had blown a pile of oak leaves.
Oliver said, “Don’t take it too hard, Ma. We’ll build you the best house on the river.”
She gathered her strength.
“I don’t want it. I’m too old. I want to live in Boston.”
Jody looked at his father. Penny’s face was drawn.
She said defiantly, “I want to go in the mornin’.”
Oliver said, “Why, Ma—Leave here?”
His face lightened.
He said slowly, “I always ship out of Boston. Ma, I’d love it. But do I turn you loose amongst them Yankees, I’m feered you’ll start another war between the states.”
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.