Plot: This quiet, thoughtful, visually striking adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings covers a year in the life of the Baxter family, post-Civil War settlers in remote Florida. The focus is on Jody (Claude Jarman, Jr.), 12, a dreamy boy who loves animals and wishes he could have a pet, “something for my own, something to follow me.” Pa Baxter (Gregory Peck) is warm and understanding. Ma (Jane Wyman) seems harsh and rigid, but only because she has been so devastated by the loss of three children that she feels she has to contain her feelings, that if she allows herself to be vulnerable she will not be able to stand the pain.
The only other boy Jody knows is a frail boy named Fodderwing, who lives nearby. Jody loves to visit him, to hear his imaginative tales and play with his pets. Over Ma’s objections, Pa insists that Jody be allowed to have a young deer as a pet, and Jody goes to Fodderwing to ask him to name the deer. Fodderwing has died, but his father tells Jody he once said that if he had a deer, he would name it Flag, and that is the name Jody chooses. Jody loves Flag, and does everything he can to keep him, even building a high fence to keep Flag out of the corn crop, which is essential to the family’s livelihood. But Flag cannot stop eating the crop and has to be destroyed. Ma shoots him, and then Jody has to put him out of his misery.
Jody runs away, but returns. His father notes approvingly that Jody “takes [the loss] for his share and goes on,” and tells Ma that “He’s done come back different. He’s taken the punishment. He ain’t a yearling no more.”
Discussion: This is a classic story of loss, not just of a beloved pet, but of the innocence and freedom of childhood that Flag symbolizes. Pa says to Jody: “Every man wants life to be a fine thing, and easy. Well, it’s fine, son, powerful fine. But it ain’t easy. I want life to be easier for you than it was for me….A man’s heart aches seeing his young ‘uns face the world knowing that they got to have their insides tore out the way his was tore.” All parents want to protect their children this way. And yet, all parents realize that having one’s “insides tore out” is a necessary part of growing up, that no one ever learns how to make responsible choices without these painful experiences. Pa tells Jody that life is “gettin’, losin’, gettin’, losin’.”
In the last moment of the film, as in the book, the boy and the deer run off together in Jody’s imagination. In part, this means that Jody’s innocence is gone with the deer. But it also means that a precious part of his spirit, the part that loved the deer so deeply, will be with him always, and will be a part of everything that he does.
Questions for Kids:
· Who is “the yearling?”
· What do you think of Pa’s strategy for trading his dog for a gun? What did he mean when he later said that his words were straight, but his intentions were crooked?
· What do Jody’s friends Fodderwing and Oliver tell you about him?
· Why was it hard for Ma to show affection? How can you tell?
· How was Jody different when he came back home?
Connections: Mature teenagers may be interested in “Cross Creek,” a fictionalized account of Rawlings’ life, including the writing of The Yearling, and “Gal Young ‘Un,” a film based on one of her short stories, about an exploitive husband his wife and his girlfriend.
Activities: Middle school kids will enjoy the book.