The Yearling and the Young Writer

Draw back the curtain, dusty and threadbare, to my childhood, and you’ll see a kid propped with a book as often as anything else. We had the first color TV in our neighborhood, a modern wonder that everyone came to watch, me gloating over the regal status of our family. An in-ground swimming pool in our backyard cooled us each afternoon while everyone else traipsed to community pools to escape New Jersey’s blistering summers. I threatened all my limbs racing a bike over the uneven landscape of sidewalk slates erupted by the roots of saplings planted 50 years earlier, now grown to jungle size. My childhood also included an excess of torment, from events I won’t describe or attribute.

At night when my jelly jar beamed with lightning bugs signaling for release, when the attic creaked its rotted beams and Jack Parr entertained adult viewers with his suave, nasal humor on late night TV, I lay in bed with a book and entered worlds more fierce and tragic, heroic and dangerous, romantic and exotic than my own. The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Johnny Tremain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Little Women, Black Beauty, The Borrowers, Heidi, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Twenty One Balloons, A Little Princess, The Swiss Family Robinson, Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates, The Secret Garden, Pollyanna, The Railway Children – all these and more captivated me and kept me up hours past bedtime. They gave me insight to the difficult lives of others. They gave me courage, come morning, to tackle another day. One book was so special I’ve already bought a copy for my young grandson, years before he can read it.

The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, is about Jody, a youngster who lives in the Florida back country with his parents and his adopted orphaned fawn. Life is harsh and hard scrabble, every grain of corn a hedge between mere hunger and flat out starvation, every encounter with nature a potential threat to existence, every neighbor an adversary with their own desperate circumstances to overcome. Jody adores his indulgent pa, his remote ma, his sensitive, crippled friend, and the fawn, Flag. Flag grows up to become a healthy, ravenous buck and a threat to the family’s tenuous grasp on sufficient sustenance for the following year, forcing Jody to make an  unthinkable decision.

It gripped me like no other book. It was first of all much longer than anything I’d read by at least 100 pages. Rawlings believed I could read a book this long, that I had the stamina to maintain attention for a sustained period. She trusted that I had the intelligence to keep tabs on a large cast of characters, some despicable, some so ingratiating that I still love them, all of them original and unforgettable. She engaged me with a complex plot and a sense of language so identifiable that I learned to speak 19th century Floridian with the best of the swamp dwellers.

More than that, Rawlings threw me a life raft. All the stories I’d read and loved told tales of people, usually children, surviving unlikely odds, but The Yearling treated me like an adult.  Her dollar words and profound ideas made me think about the issues that motivate people to endure the impossible. The story gave me insight into how to navigate the unpredictable and sometimes violent swamp of my childhood. It showed me a way to identify the currents beneath my own strange family issues and swim to the surface. I couldn’t understand Jody’s ma, and I couldn’t understand my own mother. And the book made me try to write like Rawlings.

What did a New Jersey kid know about the wilds of the Louisiana or Florida swamps, the vastness of the American prairie, or even the poverty of the downtown Black neighborhoods? Not much. Didn’t stop me from writing about them. My stories became populated with folks who had Southern drawls or Western twangs and lived in foul places built more of imagination than any reference to real locales. What did an 11-year-old know about restrictive social impositions on the other side of town that made it impossible for a man to care for his family or for a woman to walk proudly? Hardly a thing. Didn’t stop me from creating them. My characters faced unjust tribulations and resolved them with courage and invention even if the events were outrageous and the outcomes impossible. I didn’t even flinch from occasionally letting a protagonist die. Melodrama was my forte.

My teachers encouraged me, if only because I used lots of adverbs and adjectives and fashioned strange names for my characters. I won a few school awards and fleeting acknowledgement. My parents applauded my effort, though I’m pretty sure they never read anything I wrote.

No matter. In the far dark corner sat a little woman with a stern face who waited patiently while I put down my stories in longhand. My hero, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, prodded me to write. Decades ago and long interrupted but now restarted, I began to write stories. I wrote first for children; now I write for adults. My stories are about people who confront savage or mysterious circumstances and overcome personal failure to find a way to triumph. It’s what happened to Jody. I try to engage readers as much as Rawlings engaged me. I hope that people find solace in my stories for what can’t be described or attributed in their lives.

What childhood book stays with you?

Be well, friend.

 

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10 thoughts on “The Yearling and the Young Writer

  1. Love your writing–“Draw back the curtain, dusty and threadbare, to my childhood, and you’ll see a kid propped with a book as often as anything else.” So like your books.

  2. Asimov was that author for me. The one whose work gripped me like no other author could. Well, him and also Dr. Seuss.

  3. I read mostly the Bible, sports magazines and books when I was younger. One great book I found captivating was by Roger Kahn called “The Boys of Summer”. Also one about the Negro Leagues called, “Only the Ball Was White”.

    • I’m not familiar with either Kahn’s book or “Only the Ball Was White.” Read the Bible several times for college classes and discovered that nearly every book title I could remember was a line from it – or from Shakespeare.

  4. Two of Madeleine L’Engle’s books have stuck with me over the years: “Camilla” and “An Acceptable Time.” I connected with these moreso than L’Engle’s famous “A Wrinkle in Time” because I was a deeply romantic girl, and both of the aforementioned books dealt with different kinds of longing and melancholy. Just thinking about those books catapults me back to that time, and makes me want to go in search of them to read again.

  5. I read L’Engle’s “Meet the Austins” series until they fell apart. I still have them, taped, re-taped and faded, waiting for my daughter on the shelf she knows is for when she’s ten or twelve. “And Both Were Young,” is another rich L’Engle that I read over and over.

  6. I have a personal connection to Madeleine L’Engle. Well, connection might be too strong a word. It might be more realistic to call it a passing acquaintance similar to that of sitting in the same plane as a celebrity, celebrity in first class, me in coach.
    Thirty years ago I was writing and reading children’s books, many of them books I’d missed in my own childhood, many written after I’d become adult. I met L’Engle at a conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers in the summer of 1982 or ’83. She was the keynote speaker and I was a second year associate member who needed to get published in order to remain in the Society. (No, I didn’t attain the desired professional status.)
    That year the conference, held at the Marriott in Santa Barbara, offered wannabe writers a chance to have a work in progress reviewed by a notable writer for a $10 fee in addition to the conference fees. An unbelievable bargain and even then more like a steal. I submitted my book and was astounded to learn that L’Engle herself had been selected to review my book. She invited me to her room for our half hour meeting and said, “Well, you know what’s wrong with your book.” I was immediately cowed by her statement and though I knew the book needed revision, I had no idea how to fix. It would be decades before I realized that she’d never bothered to read my book. Why would an author of her stature read a loose manuscript written by an unpublished nobody?
    Still, my $10 was well spent and I have no regrets. While changing her clothes and fixing her hair for the next event, she talked to me for 30 minutes about her life. Though I’d read about 15 of her books by that time, there was no Internet and people still had a measure of privacy about their lives. One of the things she told me was that her own favorite book was The Small Rain, her earliest published book. She regretted that it was long out of print. I’ve never read it.
    Over the years I continued to read her books, impressed by the quality of her writing and determination of her characters. I liked that they showed up in multiple stories, their personalities and skills developing in each new story. I also liked that she respected her young audience with books that she never dumbed down to the supposed child level.
    I took away several of her books autographed to my sons, and a memory of a gracious and vibrant woman who made no space for sloth or failure. When she died in 2007, I felt a personal loss, along with thousands of other admirers.
    On your recommendation, Prairie, I’m going to find Camille and also track down a copy of The Small Rain. Time to get back to the charm of L’Engle’s stories.

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