SUBJECTS — U.S./1913 – 1941 & Florida; Literature/U.S.;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Running Away; Families in Crisis; Father/Daughter; Taking Care of Yourself; Suicide;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness; Responsibility; Respect; Caring.
AGE: 14+; MPAA Rating — PG;
Drama; 1983; 127 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
Taken from the memoirs of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, “Cross Creek” is a beautiful tale of a woman determined to live independently in rural Florida and become a writer. During the first third of the 20th century, this was an unusual and difficult lifestyle.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
Selected Awards: 1983 Cannes Film Festival: Best Film; 1983 Academy Award Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Torn), Best Supporting Actress (Woodard), Best Costume Design, Best Original Score.
Featured Actors: Mary Steenburgen, Rip Torn, Peter Coyote, Dana Hill, Alfre Woodard, Malcolm McDowell.
Director: Martin Ritt.
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
This film has many benefits. Rawlings is a strong woman, determined to become a writer at a time when this was not the usual path for a young woman. The movie describes rural Florida in the first third of the 20th century. “Cross Creek” will be helpful in health classes to illustrate issues of family relationships, demonstrating that families are units and that each member is affected by what another family member does. It provides a graphic example of the consequences of risky behavior such as running away and getting drunk. The film demonstrates the tragedy and futility of suicide and shows the law of unintended consequences in action. “Cross Creek” also introduces the concept of “suicide by cop.”
In English and literature classes, the film can serve as a basis for class discussion and essay writing. An intriguing use of the film is to show how Ms. Rawlings’ actual experiences were transmuted into her classic novel The Yearling. Because the contrasts between the film and the novel are so interesting, “Cross Creek” will have the best effect if shown to children who have already read the novel. We do not advise substituting the film The Yearling for the novel. While the film is excellent, the novel is a classic and should be read by all children. They can watch the movie after they read the novel.
SERIOUS. Ellie, the girl who raised the deer, curses her father for killing her pet and runs away. She eventually returns unharmed. But Ellie’s father, who doted on her, becomes despondent. Feeling that things could never be the same, the father either commits suicide by provoking the local sheriff into killing him or gets himself into a situation in which the sheriff accidentally shoots him. (See discussion: Did Marsh Turner Really Commit Suicide? in the Helpful Background Section.) There is some mild profanity.
Should your child be assigned to read “The Yearling” in school, this film will make the book far more interesting as it is the true story upon which the book is based. For children who view the film without the obligation to read the book, you may want to bring the book home and use the child’s interest in the film to draw him or her into reading the novel. After the film is over, you may want to talk about the differences between the book and the movie. You may also want to discuss the problem of Suicide by Cop which creates many victims: the individual who chose to die, their family members, and the cop who was essentially forced into assisting in the suicide.
For all children, ask and walk your kids through the answer to the Quick Discussion Question.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1896 – 1953) was born in Washington, D.C. and later lived in Wisconsin. In 1928, after a trip to Florida, she and her husband purchased an orange grove in Cross Creek, Florida. She divorced her husband in 1933 and in 1941 married Norton Sanford Baskin, a restaurant and hotel owner. They never lived together full time and she did not take his name.
Rawlings set the scene of her writing in rural Florida. She won the Pulitzer prize in 1938 for The Yearling. Other well-known works by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings are Jacobs Ladder (1931), South Moon Under (1933) and Cross Creek (1943). The latter is a semi-autobiographical novel.
Did Marsh Turner Commit “Suicide by Cop” or Was his Death The Result of a Tragic Misunderstanding?
Police assisted suicide occurs when a person intentionally provokes a law enforcement officer into killing him or her. It is now a recognized problem. Killing people in the line of duty is stressful for most police officers. When the person killed manipulates the police officer into becoming an agent of suicide, there is additional stress on the officer.
It is not clear how Marsh Turner (Ellie’s father) died. Many say he committed suicide by provoking the sheriff to shoot him. Others disagree. Here are some of the points pro and con:
Marsh Turner Purposefully Provoked the Sheriff into Shooting Him:
- The only reason to toss the bottle through the window at the bar was to get the sheriff to follow him.
- Marsh was very sad when he was talking to his wife after Ellie ran away.
- Even when Marsh’s wife reassured him that Ellie would come back, his only response was that “It don’t matter. Things will never be the same.” Given how much he loved his daughter, how could it not matter? This is the type of statement, without any hope, that someone would make if he was going to do something final.
- When the sheriff found him in the woods and asked for the gun, Marsh said, “You want my gun? Take it.” This was a challenge. When Marsh went to hand the gun to the sheriff, it looked as if he was going to shoot the sheriff. Marsh was an experienced gunman and knew what his actions would telegraph to the sheriff.
- Marsh was a brittle man who depended for his sense of himself on how others viewed him and on his relationship with his daughter. When the relationship with his daughter crumbled, he couldn’t see beyond the immediate shame and pain.
- People in the town liked Marsh. The sheriff wouldn’t have killed him on purpose.
It Was All a Mistake:
- Marsh didn’t shoot himself. The sheriff shot him.
- Tossing the bottle through the bar window was the type of dumb thing that people do when they’re drunk. It is mere supposition to say that it was designed to set up the whole suicide scenario.
- When the sheriff came to get Marsh, the sheriff was expecting a fight and was jumpy.
- Marsh was drunk and had an attitude.
- Marsh had the gun on his lap and his hand on the barrel. When Marsh started to hand the gun over, his movements were too quick and the sheriff thought Marsh was going to shoot. So, the sheriff shot first.
- Marsh was a responsible member of his community, was very well liked and was important to his family. He was unlikely to commit suicide.
Many thanks to the 2005 Senior Writing and Composition Class of teacher Connie Cantrell, Collins Career Center, Chesapeake, Ohio, for helping us see that there was a question about whether Marsh Turner committed suicide. Particular thanks to Justin Ash, Lanesha Brown, Sean Kelley, Dave Jenkins, Claude Franklin Kingery, Tommy Stapleton, Eric Brumfield, Mike Cremeans, Brandon Samples, Corey Thomas, and James McCallister.
Quick Discussion Question:
Families are systems that operate through a web of relationships. In “Cross Creek,” one family member abruptly changes position in relationship to the other members of the family. This causes a dramatic reaction by another family member, and ultimately, a great tragedy. (1) Who made the change? (2) What was the change? (3) What was the dramatic reaction? (4) How could a modern family in a similar situation avoid a tragic result?
(1) & (2) Ellie made the change. She ran away and rejected the close relationship that she had previously maintained with her father. (3) When Ellie rejected him and ran away, Marsh Turner was bereft. For him, his place in the family and his place in the world had been destroyed. His reaction was to commit “Suicide by Cop.” (4) Each member of any family has a place in the family system, and the actions of one family member affect all the others. At the same time, being a member of a family involves responsibilities to the rest of the family. This is true for both children and adults. In healthy families, this web of relationships nourishes each individual and helps them attain personal fulfillment. In unhealthy families the relationships hinder self-realization. It is clear in the movie that the mutual dependence of the father and the daughter were excessive. The family would have benefitted from counseling to help them improve the way they related to each other. After all, what was the father going to do when the daughter got married and moved away? What would he have done if she had decided to go to college? In the alternative, the father could simply have waited, having faith that the daughter would eventually come to her senses.
2. What are the differences between The Yearling and the events set out in “Cross Creek”?
There are many. Here are three. In the novel, the child with the pet deer is a boy named Jody. The father in the novel doesn’t commit suicide and is a role model for his son. This last change allows Rawlings to develop the theme of a good relationship between father and son. In the book, Jody finishes off the deer himself. This allows Rawlings to develop the issues of accepting responsibility and coming of age.
3. Does the fictional story of The Yearling tell less of a human truth than the realistic tale of “Cross Creek”?
No. The literary truth of the Yearling is just as powerful as the literal truth of “Cross Creek.”
1. Would you run away if your father had to kill your favorite pet in order to prevent it from eating your family’s food?
The right answer is “no” because running away is extremely dangerous. A pet, any pet, is not worth the risks inherent in running away. In addition, in this case there was a reason the pet had to be killed.
2. What could have happened to Ellie when she ran away?
Ellie could have gotten lost, or she could have suffered an injury. She could have been robbed, raped, or kidnapped. (In today’s world sexual abuse and “white slavery” are additional risks.)
3. Running away from home is obviously risky behavior. In today’s world, what are some of the alternatives to running away if life at home becomes intolerable?
The first step is to try everything you can think of to change the situation short of running away. Be creative; think outside the box. Try to get everyone or yourself into therapy. If absolutely nothing will work and you must leave, staying with a trusted friend or relative is a good idea. There are also social service agencies that will help you find a place to stay. These are available through the police, your school or youth group counselor, or a religious leader such as a minister, priest, or rabbi.
4. What is the most important unexpected consequence of Ellie’s reaction to her father killing the deer?
Her father flips out and dies.
FAMILIES IN CRISIS and FATHER/DAUGHTER
See the Quick Discussion Question.
5. What assets do modern families in developed countries have in dealing with a crisis at home which were not available to the Turner family in Cross Creek?
There are many. Here are two that a good answer would refer to (1) a developed social service network that has places for children to stay for a while if they’ve left home and (2) family and individual counseling and psychological therapy. A well-trained counselor, for example, would have comforted a distraught Ellie and pointed out that her father had no choice but to kill the deer. If Ellie had run away, a counselor would have led Marsh Turner to an understanding that his panic and grief were based upon an unrealistic view of his relationship with his daughter, would have reassured him that he would have a good relationship with his daughter in the future, and would have guided him to a less dependent relationship with her when she returned.
TAKING CARE OF YOURSELF and SUICIDE
6. Did Marsh Turner commit suicide or was his death caused by a misunderstanding?
There is no one right answer. See Did Marsh Turner Commit “Suicide by Cop” or Was his Death The Result of a Tragic Misunderstanding? located in the Helpful Background Section.
7. Two related questions: (a) Was Marsh Turner right when he thought that his relationship with his daughter would never be the same? (b) Can you think of a strategy that he could he have used to deal with the situation other than killing himself or placing himself in a situation in which the sheriff killed him? As you answer, notice the resources are available to most people in developed countries that could have changed this situation.
(a) Marsh was right that his relationship with his daughter would never be the same. However, it wasn’t irretrievably lost and could have become a great deal better if it was placed on a healthier footing. (b) There are several strategies Marsh could have used: Just waiting until Ellie had matured would be enough to change the dynamic of the situation. There is a term physicians use called “tincture of time.” By this, they mean that the body often heals itself without the doctor doing anything. The same is true in human relationships. Intervention through therapy and counseling were another strategy, but these were probably not available at the time. Therapy would have helped the Turner family resolve their conflicts over the deer, change the overly involved dependent relationship between Ellie and her father, and move the family toward a system that promoted the personal fulfillment of individual family members. Family therapy or even individual therapy would also have helped Marsh Turner overcome the very serious psychological problems and unrealistic expectations that he had which contributed to his suicide/dangerous behavior.
8. The sheriff shot and killed Marsh Turner. Shouldn’t he have just wounded him?
Certainly just wounding Turner would have been better. The risk was that a wounded Marsh Turner could shoot back at the sheriff. The question of when to shoot and where to shoot is a constant problem for conscientious police officers.
9. What is a stakeholder and who were the stakeholders in the father’s decision to commit suicide or to engage in behavior which would put him in a dangerous situation?
A stakeholder is a person who is affected, directly or indirectly, by the decision of another. Each member of Marsh Turner’s family was a stakeholder in his decision to commit suicide or to take action that put his life in danger. The message of rejection of love being offered and the disinterest in offering love to surviving family members are the overriding messages that a suicide leaves behind. It’s very difficult for children to recover from this type of unalterable and absolute abandonment. Spouses are especially hard hit by the rejection implicit in suicide.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
1. Analyze the actions of any major character in the film applying two tests which any ethical action must pass: (1) The Golden Rule: Would the person taking the action want to be treated by others in the same way? Or, alternatively, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” and (2) The test of universality: Would it be good for society if everyone acted that way in a similar situation?
There is no one right answer to this question. Here is an example of a good answer referring to Ellie’s decision to run away: Ellie would not have wanted people who were important to her to run away if she had disappointed them. If everyone ran away from people who had failed to meet their expectations or with whom they were in conflict, opportunities for personal growth and reconciliation would be lost.
2. The plots of most films turn on one or more ethical choices which must be made by the characters in the movie. Which of The Six Pillars of Character, if any, are involved in the plot of this film? Tell us whether the ethical decisions made by the characters complied with the standards set out in the Six Pillars. Justify your opinion.
There is no one correct answer to this question. We offer three examples of good answers: (1) Assume Marsh Turner intended to commit suicide: (A) Marsh was not standing by his family and friends; he was opting out of loving and responsible relationships. This violated the Pillar of Trustworthiness. (B) Marsh, as a loving husband and father, wouldn’t want his family members to kill themselves if they became disappointed in something, even in a major relationship. Yet he subjected each of them to a life of regret. His conduct violated the Pillar of Respect and was a breach of the Golden Rule. (C) Fathers/husbands are supposed to care for their families. Marsh couldn’t do that from the grave. This violated the Pillar of Responsibility. (D) Marsh also violated the Pillar of Caring, because suicide is always a message to your family that you don’t care about them enough to go on living.
(2) If Marsh didn’t intend to commit suicide, he violated the same Pillars (although with less intent) by placing himself in a position in which he knew or should have known that he could get hurt.
(3) Ellie’s action in running away: (A) She violated the Pillar of Trustworthiness by failing to stand by her family. She knew that the food eaten by the deer was necessary for her family and that there was a good reason to kill the deer. (B) She didn’t follow the Golden Rule because no parent wants a child to run away, but she ran from her parents. This violated the Pillar of Respect. (C) As to the Pillar of Responsibility, she didn’t do what she was supposed to do, which was to talk to her parents and ultimately to obey them. (D) Finally, the Pillar of Caring was violated again because her actions were designed to cause pain to her parents in retribution for the death of the deer.
(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends, and country)
(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements)
(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)
(Play by the rules; Take turns and share; Be open-minded; listen to others; Don’t take advantage of others; Don’t blame others carelessly)
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
- Assignments, Projects, and Activities for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction
- Students can debate and then write an essay on whether Marsh Turner committed suicide by getting the sheriff to kill him or whether his death was an accident. Suggested by teacher Connie Cantrell, Collins Career Center, Chesapeake, Ohio, 2005.
BRIDGES TO READING
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
- Production Notes on Cross Creek;
- MARJORIE KINNAN RAWLINGS Correspondence and Manuscripts in the library of the University of Florida;