“The greatest charge that can be leveled against New England,” wrote Joseph Wood Krutch, “is not Puritanism but February.” If, like me, you’re counting the days until April, and entertaining escapist fantasies, one or all of a trio of American classics may help you.
These three books–The Yearling, The Grass Harp, and My Antonia—all use a richly described natural world as the setting in which the spring of the human life cycle itself advances. Each novel relies on the protagonist’s or narrator’s close observations of nature to evoke childhood’s sensuous leisure, its accompanying sense of wonder, and the maturational lessons of youth.
In The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Jody, a pubescent boy living in the late nineteenth century, undergoes a series of adventures and conflicts in the wild scrub around his family’s small Florida farm–conflicts that harden his childhood tenderness into the independence of young manhood. Yet, while the natural world beckons to, and tests Jody, and widens his understanding, the book–with its lush, appreciative renderings of the natural world–serves the reader differently–as a magical refuge. “I do not understand,” said Rawlings “how anyone can live without some small place of enchantment to turn to.”
Truman Capote writes of such an enchanted place in The Grass Harp, a semi-autobiographical novel Capote wrote in his twenties, about a lengthy retreat to a tree house with members of the extended family who helped raise him. Here again, nature is the refuge of the young, the sensitive, the imaginative. “It was as though we floated through the afternoon on the raft of the tree,” he writes.
In Willa Cather’s My Antonia, the Nebraska prairie inspires a growing boy to explore and learn and wonder, much as the Florida scrub in The Yearling. The young protagonists’ social perceptions are grounded in the landscape and its redemptive value (in keeping, some would say, with the zeitgeist of Cather’s period of American history).
These titles bloom perennially on high school English course syllabi. Yet, as a student, I could not read The Yearling. I left it in my locker and went home to find War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Bronte novels and Checkov plays—works that would unlock for me the mysteries of the adult world. I found my own innocence frustrating–and even more so the awkward encounters of adolescence. The moments of childhood wonder and growing pains depicted by Rawlings, Capote, and Cather, are more comforting from an adult perspective. They let us revisit an earlier season, while we anticipate, with everyone else, the annual return of Spring itself.