How Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings found her groove

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, failed romance writer?

One of the most pleasant days of my recent week-long visit with my parents in Florida (I’m from the Tampa Bay area originally), was a visit to the old farm house and orange grove where Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote her classics The Yearling, Cross Creek, and more.

According to the excellent guide who took us through the house, Rawling and her husband, both would-be novelists, had decided to ditch their dead-end newspaper jobs up north and try their hand at oranges and fiction.

Their timing was terrible. They had a mortgage, and shortly after their arrival the Great Depression hit and devalued their investment immediately (and apparently also killed the market for romance novels — which I find hard to believe from today’s perspective).

Our guide suggested that Mr. Rawlings couldn’t stand the competition with his more talented wife and cleared out, leaving her stranded on a farm in the middle of the Florida scrub.

Rawlings set out to learn how to survive from her neighbors, and wrote a short piece about them that got her noticed by an editor up north. He pushed her to do more in that direction, and the eventual result was The Yearling, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939.

When I was moved from Tampa’s Dunbar Sixth Grade Center to Clearwater’s Palmetto Elementary in the sixth grade, Mrs. Ellis was reading The Yearling aloud to my raptly attentive home room, which may be part of the reason I didn’t read it again until just last year.

When I finally took it up on my own I initially found it a bit stylistically flat, with a repetitive rhythm of simple declarative sentences — ideal for a children’s book, perhaps — but then I quickly got wrapped up in the tale of a small, emotionally fraught family trying to survive by their wits in the middle of the Florida wilderness. As a gardener and a cook, I was particularly fascinated by their plantings and preservation techniques (from today’s perspective it’s hard to believe they survived eating meat potted in fat and stored under the house without refrigeration).

I can understand how Rawlings and Zora Neale Hurston became friends despite the formidable racial barriers of that era, because they clearly shared a similar interest in anthropology and a similar appetite for adventure. (Their Eyes Were Watching God is another novel of Florida that captures a way of life that has since disappeared.)

Both Rawlings and Hurston brought keen outsider’s eyes to their subject, which makes me wonder how often writers are born from — or at least shaped by — that essential injury of being transplanted to a strange new world.

This is certainly the case with me — so far I have always written about the Northeast, after having been moved there (kicking and screaming) at the age of sixteen. I suppose if I ever move back, I might be able to bring the same observer’s eye to my home state, but I am not in any hurry to do so. (Sorry, Mom and Dad.)

Anyway, it was interesting to see how a change of venue — and an open mind towards her new environs — led to astonishing success for Rawlings, especially when The Yearling was made into a popular movie. (Whoever designed that movie poster had clearly never been to Florida, which has no mountains.)

It was also interesting to hear that Rawlings’ pronounced her maiden name KinAWN. That was news to me.

We had to leave our tour without exploring the grounds because we were meeting friends of my parents at the nearby The Yearling Restaurant. It was a fitting end to the adventure, for we shared fried gator, frog legs, and green tomatoes as an appetizer, while Willie Green played blues in the background.

(For the record: Yes, gator tastes like chicken — chicken with the texture of lawn chair mesh. Frog legs also taste like chicken, but the texture is much better. Seems like quite a waste of frog, though.)

If you can’t make it there yourself, I hope you’ll enjoy this tour of the house: