Tuesday, May 26, 2009

On My Nightstand: Reading About Birds

Tastes just like turkey!

(Part of an occasional series)

One way to know a place really well is by its birds. Another is by the literature it inspires.

My hometown of Los Angeles gets rightfully blamed for a lot of its, um, "contributions", to American society (Paris Hilton! The Hills!), but its spirit of experimentation and endlessly shifting subcultures have also made it a fertile incubator for literary talent. Back in my English major days, I imagined how much fun it would be to plan a seminar around Los Angeles-based authors and books (think Nathaniel West, Raymond Chandler, Joan Didion, the one-hit-wonder who wrote Ramona (Signet Classics)). L.A. lit is strange, dark, and funny, just like the town that inspires it.

The Gainesville area's contribution to the national literary canon, on the other hand, seems to be limited to a single 70-year-old young adult novel: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' The Yearling (Aladdin Classics). I've been avoiding the book all year because (1) everyone kept telling me to read it, and (2) I hated the goopy impressions I kept getting about it from local civic boosters: it's a touching coming-of-age story of a young cracker boy living in a mysteriously mosquito- and fire-ant-free version of Cross Creek sometime in the 19th century. (And because of the soaring leap of imagination this scenario required, Rawlings was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.)

Unlike Rawlings' intended readers, however, I've already come of age, and know firsthand that the experience not always sweet and touching. It actually sucks big time. It hurts worse than anything a kid could ever imagine. And the last thing I wanted to do with my spare time was waste it on an "uplifting" kiddie book, even one set near my new home. Gag me with a saw palmetto!

But curiosity—and the need for diversion on the long plane ride back to California for the summer—got the better of me. So loaded onto my carry-on bag, along with my boarding pass and a supply of granola bars to eat on the way, was a copy of The Yearling.

And I was happy to find that Gainesville's civic boosters had seriously misrepresented it.

First, it's not really a children's book, at least not for today's children. The plot unfolds slowly, with long digressions for lovingly detailed descriptions of the natural landscape. (Most intriguing for me are the glimpses of the area's folk ornithology: references to singing "red birds" certainly referred to Northern Cardinals; the "curlews" with long beaks and big white bodies that cooked and ate like turkey were mostly likely White Ibises.) The titular character—a young deer—doesn't enter the picture until halfway into the novel.

Most jarring to modern sensitivities, though, are the threads of moral ambiguity woven into the narrative. The parents and educators who forced Cookie Monster into a primarily fruit-and-vegetable diet would freak if a contemporary youth novel contained as much straight-faced lying, stealing, and gratuitous whiskey-swilling (by heroes and villains alike) as The Yearling. And the Florida backwoods the young protagonist Jody Baxter and his family inhabit—and that Rawlings so lovingly describes—are simultaneously a source of solace and life-threatening menace. Ditto the Baxters' closest neighbors and best frenemies, the Forresters: when not stealing the Baxters' livestock, burning down a house to avenge a romantic snub, or beating the pulp out of Jody's hero Oliver, a young sailor, they find the wherewithal to save Jody's father from a rattlesnake bite and work the Baxter farm while he recovers.

And in his year of discovery, Jody learns not only hunting and farming, but the equally important adult skills of the little white lie and the pragmatic (as well as spiritual) usefulness of forgiveness. For a family of sustenance farmers with no safety net, neighbors with dubious ethics are better than none at all.

In the end, Jody—and the young readers following his travels—learns that adulthood truly sucks. And getting there hurts worse than he ever imagined.

This is probably not the take-away message Gainesville's boosters want visitors and newcomers to associate with the town. But props to them for offering up a harrowing, hauntingly honest read.

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