I had seen the 1974 film version of Where the Red Fern Grows when my two older boys were elementary-school age, some 25 or so years ago. I enjoyed the film, but I don’t remember if I knew then it was based on a book. I wish we had read it back then! But I was glad to finally listen to it via audiobook this month.
The book begins with an adult Billy Coleman leaving work and coming upon a dogfight. When he sees the dog being attacked is a hound like one he used to have, he rescues it, takes it home, feeds it, and lets it rest, then releases it. That stirs up memories of the dogs he used to have.
Billy had grown up in a poor family in the Ozarks. There was nothing he wanted more than a dog to go coon hunting with – but not just any dog. He wanted hounds. His parents could have gotten him a mongrel dog, but they could not afford a special breed, no matter how much Billy pleaded.
I suppose there’s a time in practically every young boy’s life when he’s affected by that wonderful disease of puppy love. I don’t mean the kind a boy has for the pretty little girl that lives down the road. I mean the real kind, the kind that has four small feet and a wiggly tail, and sharp little teeth that can gnaw on a boy’s finger; the kind a boy can romp and play with, even eat and sleep with.
One day Billy found a magazine some hunters had left behind at their campground and found an ad for two Redbone Coonhounds for $50. Without telling anyone, he performed odd jobs, dug up and sold worms for bait, picked and sold blackberries, and did anything he could think of to earn money. It took him two years, and when he finally showed his savings to his grandfather and told him what they were for, his grandpa helped him order the dogs. But the dogs would be shipped to a town more than a day’s journey away. Billy took off on foot alone to pick up his dogs and bring them back, helped by a kindly station master.
The dogs were a brother and sister. Billy named the brother, who was strong and quick to react, Old Dan. The thoughtful, intelligent girl dog was named Little Ann.
Billy went to work training his dogs to hunt coons, selling coon hides and giving the money to his father, and having many adventures with his dogs. Tragedy struck a couple of times, the second occurrence shaking Billy’s faith.
This is a wonderful “boy and his dogs” and coming of age story, even if readers are not all that interested in hunting. Strong themes of loyalty, perseverance, family, and faith undergird the novel. There are a couple of gruesome parts (one boy has a hunting accident with an ax, a dog in a fight with a mountain lion is severely injured), and the author tells them realistically but not gratuitously. The ending is sad but ultimately hopeful.
People have been trying to understand dogs ever since the beginning of time. One never knows what they’ll do. You can read every day where a dog saved the life of a drowning child, or lay down his life for his master. Some people call this loyalty. I don’t. I may be wrong, but I call it love-the deepest kind of love.
Wikipedia shares the interesting background story of how Wilson Rawls wrote the story, destroyed his manuscript, then wrote it again at his wife’s urging. I also enjoyed reading 12 Things You Might Not Know About Where the Red Fern Grows. Though Rawls wrote for children, his first publisher oddly marketed the book to adults. Sales were slow until Rawls spoke at a conference for teachers and librarians who took the samples of his book back to their schools and libraries, where children loved it.