Classics Challengers: ‘Cross Creek’ is a lovely work, but of a bygone era

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for her novel “The Yearling,” the story of the impact a boy’s pet deer has on a family in a backwater swamp in Florida. It’s a sentimental movie (I’ve not read the book, but likely will) that, even with what is sure to be some Hollywood cleansing, isn’t too hokey.

That book drew its details from Cross Creek, Fla., the place where Rawlings lived much of her adult life, having purchased an orange grove with an inheritance from her mother. Why she chose to live in such a raw place—she was born in Washington, D.C.—isn’t explored in her wonderful memoir “Cross Creek” and that’s about the only fault in it. (Well, there’s another one, but that’s to come later.)

Rawlings’ aunt wrote her “You have in you that fatal drop of … blood, clamoring for change and adventure, and above all, for a farm,” and that’s all she gives by way of explanation. Any woman who would willingly choose to live in a place so remote and devoid of modern pleasantries, like an indoor shower, isn’t, by nature, an explainer. She does what she wants and lets the chips fall. You gotta respect that.

RawlingsRarely have I read a writer describe her home with such unabashed love. She calls the area “magic” and “enchanted” and sounds as though she feels blessed to be accepted by the land and its neighbors. As she gets accustomed to her surroundings, she makes weak attempts to mold her property to her life, but discovers there’s greater beauty in the chaos of nature, and generally leaves things the way they come naturally. Her powers of observation are finely honed and she writes lovingly of the way the dew appears on the trees and contrasts the timid greens of spring to the robust greens of summer.

Rawlings jumps with both feet into life at the Creek, taking advantage of the beauty, the bounty and the characters around her. She hunts frogs for their legs, rattlesnakes to keep other animals safe, coons, possums, alligators and just about anything else that will fit into her pot. She has no fear. When she writes about these adventures, it’s never for self-aggrandizement, it’s simply her relating stories she thinks are interesting.

In this small house, which eventually had an indoor bathroom and other conveniences like a kitchen floor that didn’t have holes where critters could hide, she wrote, often basing her stories on events that actually happened, peopled with characters she saw daily.

In that house, with no electricity, she also turned out amazing meals. “Cookery is my one vanity,” she writes at the beginning of an inspiring and mouthwatering chapter titled “Our Daily Bread.” “My literary ability may safely be questioned as harshly as one wills, but indifference to my table puts me in a rage.” Throughout the book she deliciously and meticulously details meals she cooks for visitors who come from New York, Alaska and just down the road, but this chapter details the differences between bacon and white bacon, how to cook things like squirrel, turtle eggs, crabs, froglegs and anything else that the good Lord provides. Her feelings about guavas have me on the lookout for one at the farmers’ market. Mangos, she writes, are their own kind of heaven, and details how to make mango ice cream, but warns: “Do not desecrate it, do not commit sacrilege, by making ice cream of the mango with ordinary city cream.” The recipes in this chapter—which call for quantities of “a great lump” or “as much as your guests can eat—all call for Dora’s butter, but I can’t recall whether Dora was a cow or the servant who turned the cow’s milk into butter. Either way, she says nothing will be as good as it is with Dora’s butter. I’ve torn this chapter from the book (it was a mass-market paperback and badly deteriorating) and keep it with my cookbooks now.

One suspects that, from the idyllic way she writes about Cross Creek, that she glosses over some of the less-savory aspects of life in the wild. A well-crafted phrase turns a trip to the bathroom on an icy winter day (yes, even there in Florida) makes one long for an outhouse. But what she can’t hide, and is felt throughout the entire book, is the way she feels about “the Negro.” “There are a few platitudes … that seem reasonably accurate,” she writes. “The Negro is just a child. The Negro is carefree and gay. The Negro is religious in an amusing way. The Negro is a congenital liar. There is no dependence to be put in the best of them.” She devotes an entire chapter to role of the Negro in her part of the south, with story after story of servants who just didn’t quite work out. They were drunk, they were promiscuous, they were untrustworthy, and on and on. I’m not doubting her veracity, it’s what she experienced and we have no reason to doubt her. But she also describes poverty-stricken whites who have many of the same characteristics, but doesn’t attribute those traits to their race. The word “nigger” appears, without malice in most cases, frequently. Still, after an act of kindness toward a servant, Rawlings meets an elderly black woman who says “I want to look in the face of the white woman has got such sympathy for the black one. I want to carry your name to the Lord.” Rawlings may not have seen a conflict between her attitudes toward blacks and her sincere concern for the welfare of them, but modern day readers will certainly pause at this complex relationship.

You could say there is no plot or forward momentum, and you’d be right. Each chapter stands alone, essentially, and characters come and go so I was never really sure when particular anecdotes occur in the timeline of her life. Whether you enjoy “Cross Creek” depends a lot on how much you like its structure. For me, the daring and adventure of Rawlings, and her remarkable prose were enough to keep me turning the pages. I was rewarded on every one.

Rawlings bequeathed her land to the University of Florida, which maintains it as a state park and tourists can visit the home and grounds. It’s about the only reason I can think of to go to Florida. Until then, if ever, I’ll visit safely from 70 years later and the comfort of reading chair.

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