'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.

A college professor teaching English Composition in a prison wondered how to make the 1938 novel 'The Yearling' relevant to the inmates in his class.

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? 

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.

Caller # 1: But how’d you handle it, Penny?

Baxter: His Ma don’ hold with ramblin’. So I cover fer ’im but then I tells him he’s got to fess up. I says, "Tell the truth, Jody, and shame the devil."... But I makes it clear that he got to do his chores, all his chores. 

Caller #2:  Mornin’ Penny. First-time caller, long-time listener. 

Baxter:  Good mornin’ to you. How're you today?

Caller #2:  Ahm ah-troubled. My boy got into a fight ta otha day an’ I ain’ know what to tell um ’bout fightin’. Seems to me that ta-other guy had it comin’ ’cause he dun stole stock we bin raisin’ for food dis comin’ winter. My boy sees how it bin dun, and know’d who dun it. Those no-counts who dun it don’ need our meat.  They git plenty of their own, lot’s more ’an us. I ’spect they jus’ itchin’ for a fight.  What’s a Pa ta do?

Baxter:  Dogged if I kin understand cold-out meanness....

Caller #2:  An’ what would you tell ’im ’bout goin’ inta a fight if ’en a friend ah-his-n is plumb in the middle? Does I tell-um ta steer clear ah the roockus?

Baxter:  Well, if his friend is takin’ a lickin’ – gittin’ the wust of it – he might set about evenin’ things up a bit. 'Twer otherwise if ’en his friend were doin’ all the punishin’. Generally speakin’, though, when one man’s on-reasonable, t’other has got to keep his head. Speakin’ a’ losin’ yer head. I plumb disremembered that I got tu put in a good word for our sponsors.... After trackin’, or plowin’, tain’t nothin’ like settin’ down to a hot plate o’ swamp-cabbage stew cooked in panther oil. I, myself, am partial to the smoked squirrel en brochette. Why, the meat is so tender you could kiss it off the bone. Jody’s a'tryin’ the vegetarian line but when he gits hongrey, he’ll wolf down gator-conk quiche and bear-paw pate. “Let’s git back to the phones.... Hello, you’re on the air.

[The show’s final caller asks Baxter for advice about a boy who runs away because he can’t accept the discipline necessitated by a family’s misfortunes.]

Baxter:  I guess you hope you’ve done enough to make the boy want to come back. It happened with my boy, Jody. I was able to let him see how relieved and happy I was to see him. I says to him, ‘"I’d be proud to know where you been." And after I hears his tale, I says, "I’m sorry you had to learn ’bout starvin’ thataway." Then we sat by the fire and I explained to him, best I could, how every man wants life to be a fine thing – and easy – fer his kids. And I tells him, "Well, life is fine, powerful fine – but tain’t easy." I explains to him, "I wanted it to be easy fer you, easier than it was for me." I explains to him that a man’s heart aches seeing his young 'uns face the world. I told Jody that I’d be proud if he’d live on Baxter Island and farm the clearin’ with me. I asked him if he were willin’ and we shook on it. That was a very special moment for me. [pause] What made it possible, I think, was all what we done tu-gether, and my saying to him – so’s he understood it real good – "Boy, it’s food and drink to have you home.”

The words in that final answer may have been taken from Penny Baxter, but they illustrated a state of mind that we all could admire – and even aspire to. My students did well with their project. And so, just in time for Father's Day, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings lives on.

Joseph H. Cooper teaches ethics and media law courses at Quinnipiac University.  His “Pauses and Moments” columns appear at PsychologyToday.com.

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