Finding a Familiar Loneliness in 'The Yearling'

Lois Lowry

hide captionBy the time she was eight, Lois Lowry knew she wanted to be a writer. She is now 71, the winner of two Newbery awards and the author of 35 books — The Giver is the best-known; The Willoughbys is the latest. She has acquired a great desk and a devoted dog, but she is still looking for the place where wisdom and eloquence are bestowed.

N.C. Wyeth illustration from The Yearling

hide captionIn an illustration by N.C. Wyeth, Jody frolics with his pet fawn, Flag.

Image courtesy of Rare Books and Special Collections, Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina

One spring bedtime in 1945, my mother opened a book and began to read aloud to me the first chapter of The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. I was 8 years old. By 8 I already knew I wanted to be a writer. I had taught myself to type on my father's Royal Portable typewriter, and I had read the children's classics of the time: The Secret Garden; Little Women. I pictured myself growing up to write about characters like these: smart, independent girls who rose above their circumstances; girls who triumphed.

Then, as my mother read those first few pages of The Yearling, I saw blue-gray smoke rising from the chimney of a simple cabin, and watching the smoke drift into the sky was a boy named Jody Baxter. I recognized him right away. He was so like me: skinny, blond, solitary. I moved, as my mother read the words, into the clearing in the Florida swampland where the Baxters lived their hardscrabble lives. I could hear the insects buzzing and the bubbling sound of the little spring, and I could see the glisten of the dark magnolia leaves and smell the thick pines.

It was the first time I had slid so effortlessly into the landscape of a novel.

But I was jolted, too, in the first pages by the bleakness — the desperate poverty; Jody's grim, defeated mother. These were people who were probably never going to rise, never going to triumph.

Our volume of The Yearling contained illustrations: paintings by N.C. Wyeth. One showed Jody seated on the floor, leaning against his father's bed as his father fights for life after having been bitten by a rattlesnake. My mother showed me the picture — we gazed at it together for a long time — and then went on to finish the chapter. The concluding words, speaking about the boy, are: "He was torn with hate for all death, and pity for all aloneness."

When she read that sentence, my mother began to cry. It was only as an adult, looking back on that moment, that I realized she had been weeping for herself. Her husband — my father — was in the Pacific then, where terrible battles were still being fought during that spring late in the war. My mother must have been as frightened and lonely as the boy in the book. His tears allowed her to weep, and her tears freed my own.

In the concluding paragraphs of The Yearling, Jody, now grown, wakes in the night because he hears a voice calling. But there is no one there. It is the voice of his childhood self, his memories and dreams of being young. "He would be lonely all his life," he muses. "But a man took it for his share and went on."

Jody Baxter didn't triumph. No wealthy uncle, no neighborly benefactor, no pious platitudes at the end. But when I moved into his world, I fit more comfortably there than I ever had in the lush English gardens of Mary Lennox or the virtuous New England of Jo March.

A writer is often a lonely person, I think: Our worlds are populated by the things we imagine, the things we remember or dream. For me, the voice of childhood is the one I hear most clearly. And often it comes to me in the cadence and diction of the boy in The Yearling, a book I return to again and again.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

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