For the Birds Radio Program: Book Club; The Yearling
Laura’s bird book club will be discussing The Yearling tomorrow.
Creating believable human beings in a realistic setting is an essential task in writing fiction. One technique that makes a fictional world come alive is to draw from nature. You have to look hard to find natural images in some writer’s works, but others weave nature in here and there to make the stories more vivid and real. Barbara Kingsolver, who has degrees in biology, naturally weaves nature through her novels, but so do authors without her knowledge and background.
Kurt Vonnegut ended Slaughterhouse-Five at the end of World War II, as his main character, Billy Pilgrim, a prisoner in Germany, finds himself a free man in a devastated city. Vonnegut writes:
Billy and the rest wandered out onto the shady street. The trees were leafing out. There was nothing going on there, no traffic of any kind. There was only one vehicle, an abandoned wagon drawn by two horses. The wagon was green and coffin-shaped.
Birds were talking. One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, “Po-tee-weet?”
Vonnegut’s use of a bird, innocent and unaffected by the devastation around him, gives the ending a poignancy and simple irony that little else could have, though there are few if any other references to birds in the whole book.
Southern writers notice birds a lot. Margaret Mitchell in Gone with the Wind made several references to “chimney swallows,” an imprecise term which apparently includes both Barn Swallows and Chimney Swifts. Harper Lee made several references to birds in her ornithologically-titled To Kill a Mockingbird, including Atticus’s words to Jem, “Shoot all the Blue Jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember, it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Miss Maudie explained, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
Another southern woman who wrote a Pulitzer-Prize-winning coming of age novel was Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. The Yearling is titled for a deer, but it’s filled with lovely observations about birds, too. It’s hard to find a page without a bird reference, like this description of cardinals:
The business of the spring woods went forward leisurely in the golden morning. Red-birds were mating, and the crested males were everywhere, singing until Baxter’s Island dripped with the sweetness of the sound. “Hit’s better ‘n fiddlin’ and guitarin’, ain’t it?” Penny said.
I started a bird book club here in Duluth. On the first Tuesday of every month I meet at Barnes and Noble in Duluth with anyone who wants to talk about the month’s book that features birds. Sometimes we choose a field guide or treatise on bird migration or some other book that will stretch our ornithological knowledge. Other months we choose birding adventure stories like Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway or Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher’s Wild America. But we’ve also chosen some fiction books, including Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer and, this month, Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s The Yearling. This isn’t a normal book club. It’s open to anyone who happens to want to discuss whatever book we happen to be reading that month, whether you’ve finished reading it or not, whether you’ve come to a meeting before or not. So any listeners interested in talking about The Yearling are welcome tomorrow night at seven, at Barnes and Noble. Coffee is on the house. Come join us.