The Yearling is nothing more than your classic "Boy Meets Deer, Deer Eats Boy's Family's Corn, Boy Shoots Deer" story. What more is there to say?
Well, a lot, really. Let's back up.
Jody Baxter is growing up on a little family farm in the woods of Florida, right after the Civil War. (Spoiler Alert: The North won!) His Ma and Pa, Penny and Ora Baxter, do their best to scratch a living from the wilderness, but something's always going wrong—like when Old Slewfoot, a huge, freakishly intelligent bear, kills the pig they were counting on for meat in the winter.
Logical reaction? "We're going on a bear hunt! (We're going on a bear hunt!) We're not scared! (We're not scared!)"
They don't catch him (duh, he's freakishly intelligent), but they do come back with a pretty awesome story to tell their closest neighbors, the Forresters. Jody spends the night at their place with his friend Fodder-wing, and thinks it's just great fun when they all end up partying naked in the living room together in the middle of the night. (What? Don't you do that when you have friends over?)
When he gets home and puts his clothes back on, his Pa takes him on a deer hunt, and from there into town to do some trading and visit Grandma Hutto, a family friend. While they're there, her son Oliver gets into a fight with Lem Forrester over—what else?—a girl, named Twink Weatherby. (Awesome names, guys.) Penny and Jody try to break it up, but just end up getting hurt, too.
You've probably noticed: no fawn yet.
They head home, but now Lem is mad at Penny for taking Oliver's side. So he does what anyone would do in a similar situation—steals Penny's remaining pigs. (C'mon, you know you've done it too.) Jody and Penny head out to get them back, but on the way, Penny gets bitten by a rattlesnake. He kills a doe (A deer. A female deer.), uses her organs to draw some of the poison out—totally awesome party trick—and then sends Jody to see if the Forresters will come help him. As he's leaving, Jody notices the doe had a fawn.
No time for cuddling, though: the Forresters agree to help, and even get Doc Wilson to come over, too. Phew. Now Penny is on the mend, the Forresters promise to give the pigs back, and everyone is happy—except Jody. He's worried about the fawn, and his Pa agrees that he can go get it, and raise it as a pet. He can't think of a name for it (Bambi? No. Rudolph? Nah.), so he goes to visit Fodder-wing to see what he can come up with. But it turns out poor Fodder-wing has died! Jody is devastated. Ma Forrester tells him that Fodder-wing had already thought of a name for the fawn, though—Flag.
Back at home, a crazy storm hits the forest and it pours for seven days straight. The crops are ruined, some farm animals are drowned, and the Baxters and the Forresters team up to inspect the damage to the forest. Not so bad—only moderately large numbers of wild game have drowned, and oh yeah, the forest is horribly flooded. And then, after a couple of days, the wild animals that did survive the storm start dying of a strange plague. Other than that, NBD. Well, except that the few wolves left after all this get desperate and start attacking the farm animals.
Okay, fine, it was pretty bad.
They all form a big hunting party, and end up killing the wolves - and capturing some bear cubs. Awww! Apparently, baby bear cubs are this year's Tickle Me Elmo, so they sell them in town and get all kinds of money. Since things are finally looking up for the Baxters, they decide they'll go to the town's Christmas service and festivities. Ma bakes a fruitcake, and sews some new clothes for the family. Everything seems all set—until Old Slewfoot shows up again, and kills their calf. There goes the nice peaceful Christmas.
Penny and Jody head off on another bear hunt and this time actually manage to kill him. The Forresters show up just in time—and drunk as skunks—to help carry the carcass home. Then they all head out to the party in town. When Lem finds out that Twink has married Oliver, he, again, does what any man would do—burns Grandma Hutto's house down, on Christmas Day. Like you do.
Home again, things settle down until Penny hurts himself badly doing the planting. Plus, Flag is growing and getting into more and more trouble, trampling crops and knocking over food containers. Man, fawns these days! When he eats his way through the family's entire corn crop—twice—Pa has had enough, and tells Jody to shoot him. Wait, seriously? Yep. And when Jody just can't do it, his Ma tries her hand, only to end up badly wounding poor Flag. Finally, Jody puts him out of his misery and runs away from home.
For days he wanders through the forest, and then down the river, starving and practically delirious. Finally, some sailors find him, feed him, and send him on his way home. When he gets there, he and his Pa have a chat about how cruel life is, and Jody tells him that now that he's proven himself by slaughtering a helpless animal, he's ready to take on the role of provider. As his Pa tells him, "You ain't a yearlin' no longer, Jody" (33.135). Sniff, sniff.