American author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is best known for her novel, The Yearling (I’ve never read the book, although I did see the excellent 1946 movie version staring Gregory Peck, Jane Wyman and Claude Jarman, Jr.). Today, I wanted to highlight two other works by Rawlings that deal with rural life.
The first is The Sojourner, her final novel, published in 1953. It is a beautiful piece of fiction, set in the years from the late 19th century up to the beginning of WWII, that describes the life of a good, but inarticulate, farmer, who is born to an embittered man whose own father and brother cheated him, and to a woman who has absorbed the bitterness of her husband and whose spirit becomes so contaminated with disappointment and hatred that she eventually, over a long period of years, descends into madness. Asahel Linden is the unwanted and unloved second child of Amelia, who has developed an obsessive and controlling love for her older son, Ben, the boy who was born to her and her husband in the short period of happiness that they enjoyed together in the first couple of years of their marriage (Asahel is born after the love his parents felt for each other had changed into contempt). Ben is a popular and good-natured, but irresponsible, boy, who leaves home in his late teens to get away from his suffocating mother. Asahel, who is greatly attached to his older brother, spends the rest of his life lamenting his absence, and finds friendship among people typically considered to be outcasts – an Indian, who looks upon him as a son, and teaches him how to hunt and fish; an itinerant Irish laborer, much given to drink, but a hard worker with a gift for music and understanding; an extended family of gypsies, from whom he learns something of gayety and devotion and the outside world.
The novel is, among other things, an intriguing examination of the unpredictable combinations of nature and nurture in families that can lead to unbreakable ties of affection, or to deep-seated hatreds. Asahel’s wife, Nellie – formerly Ben’s girl – is a lively, sociable woman of great beauty, but also a whirlwind of domestic energy who provides Asahel with a clean, comfortable home; and yet there is always the suspicion that the missing Ben somehow stands between the full fruition of their love for each other. Asahel is baffled by, and disappointed in, most of his children. His oldest son, Nat, displays signs at an early age of the towering selfishness and ambition that will eventually lift him to great power – and corruption – out west. Two other children are virtually shadows of Nat. Another son, Willis, eventually breaks away from Nat and perishes (but with honor). The only one of his children with whom Asahel genuinely connects in an emotional and even in an intellectual sense is young Dolly, who is tragically –and, indeed, sinisterly – taken away from him when she is still a child.
And as background, there is the great cycle of the seasons, the love of the land and of growing-things, the quiet, but sure, competence of the farmer Asahel, whose taciturnity masks a natural philosopher, hungering his life long for knowledge and wisdom, and, in the end, finding the answers to many of the questions that have haunted him since childhood.
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Cross Creek, published in 1942, is Rawlings’ account of her life as an orange grower in northern Florida, and is filled with the author’s deep insights into the hearts and minds of her rural neighbors, as well as her descriptions of the topography and wildlife of the region (there is even a recipe or two!) Two quick excerpts do not begin to do this book justice, but they’re all I have time for, and as I open the book at random, I find these items:
The outhouse that I inherited at the Creek had no boardwalk, it had no queens, no marigolds, it had, amazingly, no door. It stood on a direct line with the dining room windows. One fortunate diner might sit with his back to it. The others could not lift their eyes without meeting the wooden stare of the unhappy and misplaced edifice. They were fortunate if they did not meet as well the eye of a belated occupant, assuring himself stonily that he could not be seen.The book abounds with humor and understanding, and an abiding respect for the quiet pride of the working poor and for the primeval beauty of the creeks and swamps of her adopted home. A classic work of Americana.
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Sometimes there are friendships that have no apparent reason for existence, between people set apart by every circumstance of life, yet so firm in their foundations that they survive conditions that would separate friends of more apparent suitability. My friendship with Moe was one of these. Moe said and believed that we were friends because we needed each other.
In the village he said once, “Me and her is buddies, see? If her gate falls down, I go and fix it. If I git in a tight for money she helps me if she’s got it, and if she ain’t got it, she gits it for me. We stick together. You got to stick to the bridge that carries you across.