There was a moment late in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s 1939 Pulitzer win, The Yearling, in which a chord sounded that rapidly brought to my mind Samwise Gamgee and his explanation of potatoes to the creature Gollum. “Poe-Tay-Toes! Boil’ em, Mash ’em, Stick ’em in a Stew!” the hobbit cries in exasperation. The similar moment in Rawlings’s book arrives when Ezra “Penny” Baxter says to his wife, Ma Baxter, and his son, Jody, our protagonist, “Plantin’! Corn, Cotton, ‘Baccy! . . . Cow-peas! ‘Taters! Greens!” In this passage it is not only the tripartite rhythm; it’s the sentiment, the identification with the earth, the love of growing things, the anticipation of the repast that follows harvest, these very Hobbity qualities of Rawlings’s Baxter family that caught my imagination and sparked another round of Hobbit fever that has yet to spell itself through my mortal frame.
Will Christmas 2014 (and by implication the release of The Hobbit: There and Back Again) never get here?!
So, I went there, now let’s go back . . . to the Pulitzer. The Yearling is a classic coming-of-age story whose events are neatly book-ended (pun intended) by duplicate scenes at a location near the Baxters’ wilderness homestead called Silver Glen. It is there, in this peaceful, wild place with the beginnings of a stream fed by a spring, we find Jody heading to in the beginning of the story. The boy lays in the shadows beneath the trees and constructs a flutter-mill (a miniature water wheel) from wild cherry tree twigs and palm fronds in the flow of the watercourse. Near the close of Rawlings’s book, it is to Silver Glen Jody returns and is possessed to build another flutter-mill, but this time he is not just an innocent boy putting off his chores, he is a boy reaching for something of hope from deep within the grief and suffering that have made themselves felt in his life. The flutter-mill physically works in the same way, but emotionally, something has changed in Jody and his experience of it does not bring solace. It only seems to open a new horizon that he has to choose to explore or to run from.
That was a mouthful.
In closing. This book is certainly a case of “writing what you know.” Rawlings lived in and fell in love with the part of Florida she writes about in The Yearling. This attachment is felt on every page of her story, but what comes through even more importantly to me is her understanding of a young boy and how difficult the passage to adulthood can be.