'The Yearling,' by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, finds a place in prison
Just in time for Father's Day, prison inmates in an English class turned the paternal wisdom in 'The Yearling' into a talk-radio script.
As a college professor who teaches in a prison, I wondered: Could "The Yearling" – written by a white woman, published in 1938, and full of planting and plowing – somehow hold the attention of inmates striving for three credits that might someday transfer to a community college transcript?Skip to next paragraph
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Employing the 1947 movie adaptation, I “previewed” the book for the inmates who had enrolled in the English Composition course that I teach in a Connecticut prison. My student-inmates rightly gauged “The Yearling” to be very “white” – “redneck white.” Our class, however, mirroring the populations of many US prisons, is very non-white.
Set on a Florida bayou (scrub country) farm in the 1870s, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ novel is far removed residentially, racially, and atmospherically from the neighborhoods where most of my students grew up. The dad (Pa, Penny Baxter) is a kind of “alien,” very different in tone and temperament from many of the men they grew up with. But although the book was not an obvious choice, I discovered that a good number of copies could be purchased on the cheap at library book sales and used-book shops. The economics were compelling and so I went with it.
After the video preview, my students were quick to admit that the book had some “cred.”
“The Yearling” was the main selection of the Book of the Month Club in April 1938. It was the best-selling novel in America in 1938. And it won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Still, I felt skeptical. How could I deliver the unvarnished tolerant wisdom of "Penny" Baxter, the novel's gentle father figure, to my students?
Many of the inmates were fans of sports-talk call-in shows, so the assignment I gave them was to pick passages from the novel that could be fashioned into a script – a script that would feature key father-son moments along with accounts of conflict resolution.
We went on to imagine how a program director might incorporate those passages into a syndicated radio call-in show that would offer advice to fathers everywhere.
Here are a few “takes” from our script:
Announcer: Welcome to "Pa Baxter’s Fatherly Phrasings" – the radio call-in show that’s upbeat, down-home, and all heart.... Today’s special broadcast is brought to you by Yearling Enterprises – for 75 years a name you can trust for corn pone, sweet-potato-pone pie, sandbugger biscuits, poke-green grit dip, and sawgrass salad dressing. Funding for today’s broadcast also comes from a special underwriting grant from Doggone Dogs First-Aid Cooperative & Canine Vittles Emporium. The opinions, adages, and aphorisms of our host, Ezra Ezekial "Penny" Baxter, are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of.... And now, without further ado, your host, direct from our Baxter Island broadcast studios by Lake George, Florida, hee-rrre's Penny! [applause]
Baxter: Thank you, Lem. And a right good mornin’ to you all. Let’s go right to the phones.... Hello, you’re on the air.
Caller #1: Penny, my boy go a-ramblin’ all the time, gallavantin’... forgettin’ all ’bout the chores he’s s’posed to do. And he’s mighty sly ’bout gettin’ ’way with it. What are we to do?”
Baxter: Sounds mighty familiar. My boy, Jody, was always off frolicking when he should’a been hoeing and weedin’... His Ma used to say that our boy was gittin’ slick as a clay road in the rain.