The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

The Yearling Winner of the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Five words from the blurb: Florida, swamp, dangerous, life, survival

The Yearling won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1939. I hadn’t heard of it until I stumbled across a mention of the author in a Florida guidebook, but as I always like to read books set in the places I’m staying I ordered a copy for my holiday.  I’m not sure if it is more famous in America, but it certainly deserves more attention than it currently gets.

The Yearling is a vivid portrayal of one family struggling to survive in the wilderness in a time before the luxury of electricity or running water. They are continually at risk of starvation, but they must also battle with the elements and the local wildlife. Rattlesnakes lurk in the undergrowth, wolves try to steal their animals, and bears occasionally come too close for comfort. The story was quite simple, but the adventure of their everyday lives captivated me.

The clearing itself was pleasant if the unweeded rows of young shafts of corn were not before him. The wild bees had found the chinaberry tree by the front gate. They burrowed into the fragile clusters of lavender bloom as greedily as though there were no other flowers in the scrub; as though they had forgotten the yellow jessamine of March; the sweet bay and the magnolias ahead of them in May. It occurred to him that he might follow the swift line of the flight of the black and gold bodies, and so find a bee-tree, full of amber honey. The winter’s cane syrup was gone and most of the jellies. Finding a bee-tree was nobler work than hoeing, and the corn could wait another day.

I loved everything about this book! The descriptions were vivid, bringing the swamps of Florida to life with an incredible accuracy. I may be biased because I read the book as I was visiting places similar to those mentioned, but that is the joy of picking perfect holiday reading material!

Me and my boys canoeing in the Florida wilderness

The characters were brilliantly drawn – I felt a deep emotional connection to them all and found myself involved in a rollercoaster of emotion as I willed them to survive. I was particularly impressed by the way the different generations were given their own set of values and characteristics. The interactions between them all felt incredibly realistic and I understood why they reacted differently to the situations they were presented with.

The ending was especially good. I won’t spoil anything, but the underlying messages were impressive and I will be thinking about them for a long time to come. The coming-of-age aspects of this book make it particularly good for teenagers and I think this would make a great addition to school reading lists.

There weren’t really any negatives for this book, but some people might find the scenes of hunting and animal butchery disturbing. I found them fascinating and loved the detailed descriptions of this almost-lost way of life.

Overall I can’t fault this book. It was perfectly paced, contained some of the most realistic characters I’ve ever come across and combined these with wonderful descriptions of the natural world. It’s the best book I’ve read so far this year. Highly recommended.


Have you read any books written by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings?

Are her others as good as this one?

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  1. Jeane says:

    This is one of my favorites. I don’t remember wolves though, but the bears yes! and of course the deer. I’ve never even heard of anything else she wrote, but would be interested to try it someday.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jeane, It’s good to know you loved it too! My book contains a list of the other books she’s written and there are quite a few (10+) and I am very interested to try another. I don’t know where to start though – especially since most are out of print and so potentially quite expensive to get in the UK. Hopefully someone else will come along soon with a good idea.

  2. I can’t believe I have never read this one either —thanks for the glowing review and encouragement. I love the picture of you and the boys.

    1. Jackie says:

      Diane, Thanks! I hope you decide to read it soon.

  3. David says:

    Other than knowing the title from lists of Pulitzer winners, I knew nothing about this book, Jackie. But you’ve convinced me to order a copy – it sounds wonderful.

    1. Jackie says:

      David, Great news! I’m sure you’ll love it! The writing quality is excellent and it is so atmospheric. Please come back and tell me what you thought of it.

  4. stujallen says:

    wonderful find jackie ,I often look at lists of books that won prizes and wonder what the ones I haven’t heard of are like some books fall oiut of favour so quickly after a writer dies

    1. Jackie says:

      Stu, yes, it is a mystery to me. Some books are still well known, but have dated badly. This one is an amazing reflection of the period when it was set, but still feels fresh today. I hope you decide to give it a try.

  5. Christy says:

    On a family road trip years and years ago, we listened to an audiotape of short stories by Rawlings. I still remember two of them: “Gal Young ‘un” and “Jessamine Springs.” “Gal Young ‘un” was especially good. I haven’t actually read anything else by her, though I definitely have heard of The Yearling by name.

    1. Jackie says:

      Christy, Thanks for the recommendations! I’ll see if I can get hold of her short stories too!

  6. This book fell out of fashion here in America a while ago. I’ve never seen any of my students read it. Most of my students, like most adult readers, prefer stories written during their own lifetime, so older work suffers as a result.

    I also think we want stories set in more urban locations, for the most part.

    And isn’t there a death of a pet plot element in The Yearling? Not a popular topic in children and young adult literature these days.

    So, I’ll admit, I’ve never read this one either. I did see a copy the other day and thought about reading it. I have begun to hear more and more people praising Marjorie Rawlings lately.

    1. Jackie says:

      James, It’s such a shame that this is falling out of favour. Yes, there is the death of a pet in it (and several people). I can see why it might not be loved by teenagers (it’s probably too slow and descriptive for them too) but I loved it and I hope a few more people decide to give it a try.

  7. kimbofo says:

    This sounds great, Jackie. I love it when you find a much-neglected older book and discover that it’s brilliant. Have you ever read Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast, because that’s the book I was thinking of as I read your review. Probably quite different, but it’s about a (modern) American family trying to start afresh in the jungles of Honduras and how difficult it is for them to cope without modern conveniences etc.

    1. Jackie says:

      Kim, I haven’t read ‘Mosquito Coast’ but I bought a copy after reading and enjoying one of his other books (I wish I could remember the title) I love this sort of book so I’ll push Theroux’s to the top of the pile.

      1. kimbofo says:

        I read it in my early 20s and remember really liking it, but it’s quite dark. The film (with Harrison Ford and River Phoenix) is also worth seeing.


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