I loved the movie version of Old Yeller when my kids were little. I don’t know if I knew then that it came from a book, but I’ve been wanting to read the book by Fred Gipson for years. When I was searching for a classic about an animal for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge, plus a shorter classic after finishing a very long one, this fit the bill on both counts.
The story is told from the point of view of Travis, the fourteen-year-old oldest son of a family in Texas in the 1860s. Though the family lived off the land easily, they didn’t have much in the way of “cash money.” Some of the settlers were joining a cattle drive to a town some 600 miles away, and Travis’s dad decided to go. He left Travis as the “man of the house,” with the responsibility of a man: shooting game for food, keeping critters out of the corn, protecting the family from Indians and wildlife, milking the cows, looking after his Mama and little brother, Arliss, marking the new pigs, and not waiting for his mom to tell him to do things.
Travis felt “pretty near a grown man” and welcomed the opportunity to prove himself. With the exception of being able to reign in Little Arliss, he put in full days of work and did a good job. He was especially gratified when his mother waited supper for him, just like she did for his dad when his work ran late.
But then one day a scruffy, yellow ugly dog showed up on the property and stole some of the family’s meat. Little Arliss claimed the dog immediately, and their mom was willing for him to have him. But Travis hated him especially because of his thieving but also because he was ugly and seemed worthless.
But it wasn’t long before the dog proved it could learn and be a big help to the family, herding hogs, chasing off bears and wolves, etc. And it wasn’t long before Travis loved the dog even more than Little Arliss.
That made it all the harder when tragedy struck, which the author speaks of on the first page.
I love “coming of age” stories, especially the character has to stretch him- or herself farther than they think they can go (Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie, is another favorite along these lines.) I also enjoyed the peek into this era. It used to be a regular thing for a teenager to be trained to do an adult’s work, though they weren’t often left with it all on their shoulders like Travis was. Sometimes I wonder if that would be a better thing than not expecting young people to take on adult responsibilities until they’re out of college or later. Then again, it was a hard life, and I enjoy the fact that young people now have avenues to explore in their teens that young people didn’t have then. I also can’t imagine being nearly alone on the edges of a settlement while a husband is away for months with no means of communication for all that time, and having to patch up serious injuries of both boys and animals and take on the extra work that they can’t do while injured.
Probably my favorite part of the book is the advice Travis’s dad gave him when he returned and heard all that had gone on in his absence:
That was as rough a thing as I ever heard tell of happening to a boy. And I’m mighty proud to learn how my boy stood up to it. You couldn’t ask any more of a grown man… It’s not a thing you can forget. I don’t guess it’s a thing you ought to forget. What I mean is, things like that happen. They may seem mighty cruel and unfair, but that’s how life is part of the time. But that isn’t the only way life is. A part of the time, it’s mighty good. And a man can’t afford to waste all the good part, worrying about the bad parts. That makes it all bad.
I listens to the audiobook very nicely read by Peter Francis James. he did a good job with the expression as well as the accents. It’s been a long while since I’ve seen the movie version, but it seems to have followed closely to the book except for drawing out the climax more.