Often mistaken for a children's story, The Yearling earned its author a Pulitzer Prize and a place in the American literary pantheon. The themes explored are deeply human, reaching far beyond a mere bildungsroman and embracing the nature of love, loneliness and death. Set against the pre-Depression Florida bayou, the narrative follows the Baxter family, particularly the boy Jody, through a series of hardships culminating in the most difficult one of all—the passage from boyhood to manhood.
Jody is the only son of Penny and Ora Baxter, dirt farmers in the backwoods with neighbors no closer than most of a day's journey. Jody is preoccuppied with finding an animal to keep as a pet to assuage his deep loneliness, but few meet his mother's approval. Eventually Penny kills a deer and Jody is allowed to keep its fawn as a pet. He names the fawn Flag because its white tail is like a flag. Throughout the rest of the novel Jody's relationships (with his parents, with his friend Fodder-wing and his rowdy family, even with the woods he lives in) are all interpreted by and compared to his relationship with the fawn. It defines not only his remaining boyhood, but the increasing loss of innocence that accompanies his journey to adulthood.
Rawlings' prose adapts to whatever she's describing. At times dense, at times bright, at times violent, it captures the landscape, characters and mood of the novel effortlessly. Penny's tracking of the bear Slewfoot leaves the reader breathless; the uncontrollable rambunction of the Forrester clan leaves us giddy and a little scared; the peacefulness of the Baxter farm leaves us wanting the sublimity of primeval woods. Her characterizations are nuanced and insightful, not simple caricatures oozing sentimentality (as is often the case with animal stories). The incredible climax, more poem than prose narrative, leaves us as stricken as Jody, and finally as uplifted. Too often forgotten, The Yearling is one of the great works of American literature.