by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
“I will bring a live rattlesnake and drop it on your desk if you are ever polite about my stuff and I catch you at it,” Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings teasingly wrote to her editor, as she agonized over what would become her most famous novel, The Yearling.
She was living on the small farm in Florida where she and her newly-divorced husband had moved early in their marriage. Drawn by the romance of the state’s still-wild scrubland and its moonshine-brewing inhabitants, Rawlings wrote short stories and two novels about the region. But editor Max Perkins intrigued her, biographer Elizabeth Silverthorne writes in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: Sojourner at Cross Creek, with his suggestion for “a book about a child in the scrub, which would be designed for what we have come to call younger readers.”
At first resistant, Rawlings became enthusiastic as she gained experience -- including a rattlesnake hunt -- about the marginalized lives of her neighbors in the scrubland. But she insisted that the book must never be labeled as “juvenile,” wishing to appeal to adults as well as children with the story of a year in the life of a boy and the fawn whose life and death usher him into adulthood.
Set in the decade after the Civil War, The Yearling tells the story of Jody Baxter, the twelve-year-old son of Ezra “Penny” Baxter and his wife Ora.
Injured in spirit by his war experience, Penny returns to his wife and Jody, their youngest, and only surviving child, and takes them from the semi-civilized life they have known to the scrub, “with gratitude for its peace and isolation.”
The many dead and stillborn children before Jody have embittered his mother. But for his father Penny, this last, late-born child is a source of unending delight.
So, although with foreboding, Penny allows Jody to bring up the fawn orphaned when rattlesnake-bitten Penny kills its mother, using her flesh to absorb the poison from his wound.
For a single year, fawn and lonely boy live together, through the backbreaking labor of farming, the devastation of flood, and the depredations of bears and wolves on the family’s livestock. But as Jody wavers on the outer edge of childhood, the fawn’s wild nature reasserts itself. When its destruction of their crops brings the family to the brink of starvation, Penny must give an order that will push Jody unwillingly into manhood.
With her farm’s orange crop lost to late freezes, Rawlings was delighted by the revenue generated when The Yearling was chosen as the Book-of-the-Month Club’s selection for April 1938. It would get a Pulitzer Prize and be made into an award-winning movie, brining Rawlings the friendship of fellow Southerner (and fellow Pulitzer winner) Margaret Mitchell, and enough fame to cause confusion between the characters created by the two writers.
As Rawlings observed with self-deprecating humor, while the movie was being filmed, “a middle-aged former southern belle flounced up to her at a cocktail party and said, ‘If I was just ten years younger, honey, I’d be right out there in Hollywood this minute, playing Scarlett in your book.’”
The book, the movie, and Silverthorne’s biography of Rawlings are available at
(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics begins a March of thrillers and suspense with Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.)