Sunday, July 11, 2010
What Am I Reading?
I'm in the middle of reading Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ 1939, THE YEARLING, winner of the 1939 Pulitzer Prize in fiction—and deservedly so. Believe it or not, I’ve never read it before, but having grown up in Florida, it was one of those books you heard about all the time because the story takes place in Gainesville, right down the road from where I grew up. Having grown up in a pretty poor rural environment, below the middle class mark, in the 70s and 80s it’s been easy to identify with the young protagonist, Jody, as he comes of age with his father, Penny Baxter, and his mother, Ory, in the middle of the scrub brush wilderness of Florida’s outback. It’s truly a beautifully written tale, full of imagery that sticks with you. Or maybe it sticks with me because it’s the sort of natural beauty I grew up around. Cookville was very much like Baxter Island, surrounded by hunger and desperation for life. Some of the harsh lessons Jody must learn about the mythical adults in his life are the very same lessons I had to also learn in some rather cruel ways.
The forest in the book is like another character in the cast, much like how I viewed the woods that surrounded our home. We lived in a ratty old single wide trailer in the middle of all these towering pines and oaks. Animals were everywhere. Wild cats, like panthers and bobcats, roamed the woods in the night. There were even a few bear still loose in the forest, but they eventually moved deeper into the woods as more and more people began to move into the area. There were deer, possums, skunks, armadillos; there were more dangerous animals around as well. Rattlers, poisonous spiders and frogs; nasty tempered wasps and bees. When I was a kid, the very air was alive with sounds, night and day. It was when the forest went quiet that we all knew to look out for the Kittywampus.
But that's another story for another time...
Down back of our home, there was a small creek. It ran for quite a ways through the woods, a couple of miles or so, until it joined the larger creek. That water ran straight on into the St. Johns River, one of the few rivers in Florida to run North.
It seems to me that there was never a day that we didn't see the river. It was so deeply entrenched in our lives. My daddy, his daddy before him, and his daddy before him as well, all made their living for a time on that river out back of our home.
We had many winter days when the fires burned high, redolent pine smoke spiraled into the into the crisp blue air, and in a pot over the flames cooked blue crab, shrimp, smoked mullet and squirrel. Sometimes there was venison to be had. Occasionally, there was wild duck or pheasant. And there were many times that, if we hadn't had the land to live off of, we would not have eaten at all.
Hard times seemed to be everywhere I looked as a child. Most of my daddy's family lived around us within a half mile or less. They weren't much better off than us. Some of them were much worse. The 70s weren't easy on a lot of people in that area. There was a lot of poor people in my life. I took it for granted that anyone I knew was as poor as we were.
But growing up in a home where I wasn't handed everything when I wanted it made me a better person. I learned the value of working for what you wanted. I've seen firsthand what happens when kids are given all they want without having to work for it; I'm glad I was poor. It gave me a greater appreciation for a dollar.
I'm almost done with this great read, and I’m sure to return to it again and again, now that I’ve been lucky enough to discover it.