Where the Red Fern Grows
© 1961 Wilson Rawls
“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.”
Few books bring back memories of boyhood as swiftly as Where the Red Fern Grows. I can still remember my third grade teacher beginning to read this out loud, and my having chills as soon as the narration opened on an older man rescuing a tired hound dog and fingering a trophy on the mantle, thinking of two dogs he had loved fiercely as a child. Where the Red Fern Grows is a classic story of a boy’s yearning for puppies, and the adventures taken on once such friends were found.
Billy Coleman, the narrator, is a remarkable boy: raised in the wooded foothills of the Ozarks, a hunter and trapper from the day he could walk, he wants nothing more than a faithful hound at his side. The price of a hound bred for hunting matches that of a mule, though, and is beyond his family’s means. Undaunted, Billy earns money hunting crawdads, picking blackberries, and selling small furs until he has the funds – and then, when there is delay about sending off for the puppies, takes off into the wilderness and advances into the big city of Tahlequah to take delivery of them personally. Training them personally, teaching them every trick he’s heard of and witnessed in his long hours watching and trapping on his own, he and they become an inseparable trio, utterly devoted to one another. When the hounds Big Dan and Little Anne tree their first raccoon, Billy keeps his promise to them to ‘take care of the rest’ by laboring several days and nights at the tree, hatcheting away, and when his strength fails he prays for more. The dark nights and fast-moving creeks of the Ozarks provide danger aplenty, but they whether it together, even becoming regional champions of coonhunting. Every story has its ending, though, every childhood must end, and so does Billy’s in a violent altercation with a mountain lion. Billy himself survives, but his remembers the losses.
Where the Red Fern Grows has a brutal ending, especially for young boys who, like me, doted on their own dogs, and felt the desperate pain of separation from them when life’s twists and turns made it so. Reading now as an adult, I expect the ending, and so it is not quite gut-wrenching. Rather, like the narrator, the ending frames all of the fond memories that unfold in the story that is told before, putting them into focus. I only read this book once or twice in my youth, during the early 90s, but its scenes have buried themselves in my brain. For me this was a visit with an old friend, whose face I have not seen in decades, but not forgotten a line of. The boy is everything a boy could hope to be — courageous, intelligent, and beloved, with a pair of friends and a family who cannot be bettered. This is a book filled with love and adventure, and often the two are intertwined to great effect. It’s also a look back at an America with a frontier, where civilization is contained within scattered sanctuaries and the woods filled with danger and excitement. There are few stories that can be more enticing for a young reader, especially boys!