Nature is a big deal for the Baxters—in fact, it pretty much determines their day-to-day life, and even their survival. So it's no wonder that the narrator spends a lot of time describing nature, even after destructive events. When the storm passes, we still see how "the black-jacks flamed, the scrub oaks glistened. The fragrance of the purple deer-tongue filled the road" (24.113). And even when Jody is starving and in a daze after running away, we hear: "An early magnolia blossom was wax-white over him" (33.81).
Mother Nature can be mean, but she sure is purty.
In spite of everything that happens, Jody always feels at home in the scrub forest, and especially in Baxter's Island: "The wind howled cozily around the house. On still nights of moonlight, the foxes could be heard barking on the hammock" (28.16). As his Pa tells him when he comes back, "There's men seems made for the land. […] I'd be proud did you choose to live here and farm the clearin'" (33.144). When Jody agrees, it's clear that he was made for the land—and that he's home.
What book could be more perfect for young adults than one about a kid becoming a young adult? Um, how about a book about a kid becoming a young adult, and a little fawn becoming a yearling? Yeah, that'd be great.
If someone asked you what The Yearling was about, you might say something like, "Why, sir, it's about a boy and a fawn growing up together."
See? The whole thing is focused on Jody and Flag's coming of age. Even the title is trying to tell us how important that is to the story: "Psst! Hey, you! It's me, the title! Look at me! I'm a word for a deer on his way to becoming a full-fledged buck, but I can also be used to refer to a young person stepping into adulthood! Oh—and wanna buy a watch? They're real Rolex, I promise!"
Based on the family drama it contains, we're pretty sure that The Yearling could be made into a soap opera—an emotionally-scarred mother withholding affection from her only son, a father who loves him desperately, and the son himself, who runs away from home, only to return a changed man. Throw in some amnesia and a few unexplained pregnancies, and you've got yourself a pretty good daytime show!
The title of this book is The Yearling and the book is actually about … a yearling. Weird, huh? Okay, it's a teeny bit more complicated than that. Flag the fawn is the obvious yearling, but there are plenty of references to Jody as a yearling, too—like Pa's insistence that Jody "ain't a yearlin' no longer" (33), right before Jody agrees to start taking care of the house and farm.
Yeesh. Setting aside that Jody doesn't even have his driver's license yet, what's going on here is that Rawlings is emphasizing the book's main theme: at some point, boys (and deer) have to grow up.
Get out the tissues, because Rawlings is going straight for the tear ducts with this ending:
In the beginning of his sleep, he cried out, "Flag!"
It was not his own voice that called. It was a boy's voice. Somewhere beyond the sink-hole, past the magnolia, under the live oaks, a boy and a yearling ran side by side, and were gone forever. (33.156)
Psst. Here's a little secret: Flag isn't the only young creature who dies in The Yearling. That's right: this ending suggests that Jody, too, has died—at least, the boy version. In his place is Jody-the-Man, whose childhood, a.k.a. beloved boyhood pet, is now only a memory.
Great. If this is what adulthood is like, we'll just stay right here in our parents' basement.
The Yearling is one of those books where the setting is kind of a big deal. It's not like Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was sitting at her desk, thinking, "Hmm, where and when should this story take place? Antarctica in the 40th century? No. New York City today? Nah. Oh, I don't know, how about the scrub forest of Florida in the 1800s, right after the Civil War? Yeah, sure, why not?" The Yearling couldn't be The Yearling if it had a different setting—the story and its characters are completely a product of its location and time period. Let's look at them piece by piece:
Everything in the book, from the detailed descriptions of nature, to the dialect spoken by the characters, is unique to the scrub forest of Florida at that time. And because it's so specifically placed there, it's that more realistic to us as readers and helps bring us into the hard lives of the Baxter family.
So that's the deal with the macro setting. The micro setting is where things get really interesting. The Baxters live in a little clearing in the forest, called Baxter's Island. Jody is constantly contrasting its safety with the dangers of the rest of the forest: "Out in the scrub, the war waged ceaselessly. The bears and wolves and panthers and wild-cats all preyed on the deer. […] But the clearing was safe. Penny kept it so. […] It was a fortress in the scrub" (14.43-44).
What this description tells us is (1) Jody loves and trusts his father, and (2) the world is scary, and eventually Jody is going to have to confront the big, scary world and take on the responsibility of keeping his island safe. As Jody matures from one April to the next, though, he sees this safety violated time and again, and must venture out into the wild scrub to face the dangers there. The more he grows, the more his view of nature changes, from a lush, gorgeous wonderland to play in, to a harsh, frightening, even murderous force to be reckoned with.
The actual plot of The Yearling is pretty simple. What nudges this book up into the tree line is that digging through the layers of country dialogue and detailed descriptions can get just a little tough. First of all, whenever anybody speaks—which is pretty often—you get to decipher gems like this: "She'd rare worse'n if I had me a varmint" (12.68). Huh?
And secondly, it's like a botany class up in here, what with all the names of plants getting thrown around in the descriptions: "The tar-flower was in bloom, and fetter-bush and sparkleberry" (1.7). Have you ever seen a fetter-bush? 'Nuff said.
The narrator in The Yearling may be talking about rural folk, but she sounds like a poet, full of gorgeous descriptions, heart-rending emotions, and philosophical musings. Just check out the way she describes an old gray fence: "The weathered gray of the split-rail fence was luminous in the rich spring light" (1.23). Gee, we'll never look at a fence the same way again.
But then there are the characters themselves, saying stuff like, "I don't want nobody but me lickin' the meat I eat, let alone a nasty creetur" (22.44). Wow, that's…something. The styles don't match, but the contrast helps Rawlings make her point: life is beautiful and coarse, all at the same time.
Speaking of coarse, let's take a sec to work through that dialect. Why use phonetic spelling to convey the characters' speech? Rawlings could have just thrown in a few country expressions to flavor their dialogue, and left the spelling and grammar intact, but using the non-standard spelling helps us "hear" the sound of their conversations:
"You feel all right?" she asked.
"Yessum. Sort o' weakified."
"Well, you ain't et nothin'. Git into your shirt and breeches and come git you some dinner" (10.22-24)
It may look and sound weird, but it also makes the characters that much more alive to us and firmly locates the book in place (rural Florida) and time (1870s).
Plus, "weakified" is totally going in our vocabulary.
In the very first chapter, on a gorgeous April day, Jody leaves his chores to build a flutter-mill (a waterwheel) in the stream, and basically thinks it's all that and a bag of chips: "Up, over, down, up over, down—the flutter-mill was enchanting" (1.16). His dad doesn't even mind that he totally blew off his chores to build a toy. "Leave him kick up his heels," Penny thinks: "Leave him build his flutter-mills. The day'll come, he'll not even care to" (2.24).
Think about it this way: as Toy Story 3 taught us, you don't care as much about your old toys and games as you get older. You know those Matchbox cars or the little plastic tea set you used to love, but stopped playing with years ago? That's what the flutter-mill represents at this point: easy, carefree, and happy childhood.
But get out your highlighters, Shmoopers, because this is Meaningful. When the story begins, Jody is just a kid, right at the beginning of what's going to be a tumultuous year full of hard life truths and growing pains. A year later, everything has changed. On his way home after running away, Jody stops by the same stream on another April day, one year later. He goes to look for the flutter-mill:
It seemed to him that if he found it, he would discover with it all the other things that had vanished. The flutter-mill was gone. The flood had washed it away. (33.83)
If the flutter-mill, the symbol of a carefree childhood, is gone, then means Jody's childhood has vanished, too, washed away by the storm and everything after. But something even better might be in its place: real maturity.
Literary Analysis 101: If a book has a big mean animal that just won't stop attacking, you can be 100% sure that the big, mean animal is a symbol, and you can be 98% sure that it's a symbol of man's struggle against nature.
In this case, Old Slewfoot specifically shows us Jody's changing view of nature as he matures. See, in the beginning of the book, Jody sees the bear as something exciting, thrilling, and even romantic. (It sounds to us like Rawlings is referencing Sublime: the idea that nature can be thrilling and terrifying all at the same time.)
But Jody isn't too concerned about literary or philosophical ideas. He's just stoked to go on a fun field trip with his dad, even identifying with Slewfoot: "He pictured old Slewfoot, the great black outlaw bear with one toe missing, rearing up in his winter bed and tasting the soft air and smelling the moonlight, as he Jody, smelled and tasted them" (1.105). You know, to kill the bear you have to be the bear.
When he sees an actual death caused by the old bear, though, Slewfoot—and nature—become more frightening and dangerous. Listen to him describe it:
A chill ran along Jody's backbone. He could picture the shadow, big and black as a shed in motion, moving among the black-jacks and gathering in the tame and sleeping sow with one sweep of the great clawed paw. (3.38)
He's still excited to hunt him, but he can see the danger involved now. And his attitude takes one more turn, when Slewfoot attacks after the flood and the hunt turns vengeful. Now, he sees it as a duty: "Following old Slewfoot was probably a lifetime job" (26.152). And when Penny finally shoots him, his words sum up their relationship with nature perfectly. "Well, old fellow, you was a mighty mean enemy, but you got my respect" (26.221).
That's a lot to take in, so here's the short version. Jody's changing relationship with Old Slewfoot is a microcosm of how he grows up over the course of the novel's year: at first he thinks nature is awesome and fun, and then he thinks it's scary, and then he sees it as a worthy foe that he has to conquer in order to live.
Our cute little baby deer, covered in spots, is the perfect symbol of Jody himself, who also just so happens to be covered in spots! Well, freckles, anyway.
Jody finds him right at the moment the fawn has lost his mother—and right at the moment Jody first realizes how terrible life would be without his father: "without Penny, there was no earth. Without him there was nothing" (14.144). Meaningful? We think so.
As they both grow from fawn to yearling, they do just about everything together—play, work, and hunt. And notice how Jody is constantly asking his parents if they think Flag is cute. Maybe he's looking for affection and approval for himself, too, hmm?
The older they both get, the more often Penny refers to Jody as a yearling himself: "You're a pair o' yearlin's, … Hit grieves me" (30.34). But the more mischievous Flag grows, the more responsible Jody must become, to protect his family from his trouble-making. What starts as keeping an eye on him quickly turns into making sure all doors are closed and all food is secure. And finally, he has to build a pen big enough to hold him—something so ambitious that even his mom is surprised and proud.
The moment of truth, though, comes when Jody has to shoot Flag. At that point, they are both yearlings, coming into their own. And because Flag behaves more and more like a normal, adult deer, Jody has to behave like an adult, too…and shoot him.
The narrator in The Yearling does his expected, normal job letting us see all of Jody's thoughts and emotions throughout the story while also giving us plenty of background on the characters and events in the Baxters' past. For the most part, the narrator only gives us direct insight into Jody's thoughts and feelings, though. We learn about Ma Baxter from the outside, but we never get to hear her side of the story.
The one exception to the narrator's focus on Jody is a quick trip into Penny's brain, just enough of a peek to find out some background info on why Penny treats Jody the way he does: "He thought, 'A boy ain't a boy for long.' As he looked back over the years, he himself had had no boyhood" (2.4-5).
Most of the time, though, we're left trying to figure out what the other characters are thinking. When Pa looks at the young deer "with an unfathomable expression" (30.29), we have to guess at Pa's thoughts right along with Jody.
Jody actually spins around among some trees (but not in Lederhosen or anything), and then we meet Penny and Ora, Slewfoot, Fodder-wing and the Forresters, and Grandma Hutto and Oliver. The exposition, our introduction to the characters and their world, finally ends with Penny and Jody's trip to get their pigs back from the Forresters.
Penny is bitten by a rattlesnake and kills a doe to try and save himself. (Talk about some mad Survivorman skills.) Jody adopts the fawn she leaves behind, and from that moment on…the clock starts ticking. The fawn is growing up, and so is Jody. Get out the tissues.
You knew it was coming: Flag the fawn has wolfed down all the family's crops, so Ma Baxter shoots him, and only wounds him, meaning that Jody has to shoot him again to put him out of his misery. Up until this point, Jody was a child. Now he has to start dealing with the harsh realities of life. Stinks, doesn't it?
Rather than deal, Jody runs away from home to become a sailor. But with no food, water, map, or even a decent sense of direction, apparently, he ends up alone in a boat, starving and delirious, and has to be rescued by some fishermen. He finally comes to his senses and heads back home.
Once home, Jody gets a great pep talk from Penny about how much life can suck, and how there's nothing you can do about it. Jody is totally psyched to be home, though, and plans on taking care of his parents now. Yay! Happy ending…sort of.