Faded Pages: Where the Red Fern Grows
I have three dogs because of a book. Sure, one could say an adult’s self-control trumps whatever imperative a work of fiction might dictate, but that’s beside the point. I’m talking about the power of literature here, and the impact one book—a children’s book, at that—has had on the course of my life.
If you grew up in the latter half of the twentieth century, chances are some teacher made you read Where the Red Fern Grows, leaving an indelible scar on your tender little psyche. Like the more prolific Old Yeller, Wilson Rawls’ tale tells the story of “boy gets dog, dog saves boy, dog dies horrible death”...times two. Two film adaptations have been made, the first in 1974, with a newer version featuring a folksy Dave Matthews released in 2003.
I read this story in fifth grade and immediately, like young Billy Colman, was dying for “two good hounds.” My teacher showed us the 1974 film and that only shored up my desire for a gorgeous blood-red hound. I was a city girl and an animal lover; I had no interest in hunting coons. My neighbors wouldn’t tolerate a full-throated bawl from a proper hunting hound. I didn’t care. The book had convinced me that this was the best dog on the planet, and that I needed a dog that loved me as much as Old Dan and Little Ann loved Billy.
Fast-forward twenty years and I’m at the Humane Society, “just looking” at toy dogs. At the end of the kennel row, fate struck like a thunderbolt: here was my dog. A 40-pound red hound puppy fresh from rural Oklahoma—whose Ozark mountains set the stage for Rawls’ book—was sitting there on her pad, looking forlorn in the way only a hound can. She came home with me that day, and two others were close on her heels.
I haven’t read the book since I was a child, and was curious to see whether it lived up to the memory I’d been carrying so close to my heart. Is this a story I could come back to and be just as inspired and awed as that little girl had once been? Would it make me run out and adopt a fourth dog?
At just over 200 pages, the book is a quick read. As befits a middle-grade novel, particularly one written in the sixties, the language is simple. The dialogue is lackluster and straightforward. The characters are all about what you’d expect. That’s not to say it doesn’t paint a lovely picture, though: Rawls’ love for the Ozarks’ sweeping forests bleeds through his words on every page. The book is a love letter not only to lost friends, but to the countryside of the author’s youth. Never has rural Oklahoma been so lovingly rendered, from the quaking trees in the River Bottoms, to the vista from atop the hill where Dan and Ann’s red fern thrives. This is the story of a poor family, but one who live in a world rich with beauty.
An aching lives at the heart of this book. The ache of a boy who needs his puppies and will spend his life saving for them if he must. The ache of the grown narrator for his long-ago childhood and the two dogs that made life worth living. And a more nebulous ache for the elusive past and simpler times. With each turn of the page I felt as though I were unpacking a time capsule full of trinkets from the 1920’s. Sturdy mules plow the fields, a big bag of “fancy” candy costs a quarter, cars are still an oddity, and fifty dollars in a baking powder tin is enough to keep a family afloat...or buy a pair of good redbone dogs. With this story, Rawls seemed a man nostalgic to the point of heartbreak for the past.
And it works. Enough to make me nostalgic for a time and place I’ve never visited. There’s something to be said for simplicity, for the barefoot boy in worn out overalls. About the family whose biggest asset is their old red mule. And about finding purpose in two dogs. There are lessons to be learned in this simplicity.
As a child, I was left with the impression that these are the best dogs that ever lived and that there could be nothing more rewarding than having a pair of floppy-eared hounds following me everywhere I went.
This is what the book is actually about, and what you can learn from it as a jaded adult.
Billy’s family doesn’t have two pennies to rub together, but he wants two good hunting hounds so bad he can’t eat. He doesn’t beg and plead with his parents like I would have done at that age; he finds an old can, shines it up—this is the part that astounded me, that he polished the thing—and stealthily drops in nickels and pennies gleaned from selling worms and vegetables to fishermen. Over the course of two years. When was the last time you saved over two years to buy something? Yeah, me neither.
Once he gets his dogs, Billy is just as dedicated to their care. He spends days setting up and monitoring (really very cruel) traps to catch a coon on whose skin he can train them. He works the farm with his father all day, then runs his dogs at night when the ringtails are out on the prowl. When, on their first true hunt, the pair run a coon up the largest tree in the forest, Billy endeavors to cut it down so as not to disappoint them, even if it takes him three days.
You want something? You go get it, whether you’re thirteen or thirty-three.
Billy sacrifices his time, and all the things that fifty dollars could buy a young boy, in order to get his two hounds. Once the coon skin green starts rolling in, though, Billy hands it all off to papa. As he explains, he got what he wanted: the dogs. He doesn’t care about the money.
Billy’s parents are sacrificing their children, in a way, throughout the book. His mother schools them at home but wants nothing more than to live in town and get Billy and his three little sisters a proper school education. But town is expensive, and they are forced to scrape a living working her family’s land, education and the vague notion of “a better life” simmering on the back burner.
The greatest sacrifice, of course, comes from the dogs themselves. Old Dan and Little Ann will do anything for Billy, whether it’s swimming laps across a near-frozen creek, or staying with a tree’d coon during a blizzard. When Billy tries to save the pair from a mountain lion, incurring its feline wrath, the dogs give their lives to keep him safe.
Life’s about working hard to get something or somewhere. Much of the time, it’s also about giving up something dear to do it.
This is where it gets squishy, gang. Billy loves his dogs, and they love him right back. One of my favorite passages from the book follows a big hunt scene where the dogs have stuck with a coon all night and nearly frozen to death waiting for Billy. The hunters gathered around are talking about loyalty, and one pipes up to say “I may be wrong, but I call it love—the deepest kind of love.” To which another southern coon hunter ruminates that the world would be much better if people had that kind of love in their hearts.
The tenderness of these sentiments, spoken by gruff hillbillies on a coon hunt, is the perfect encapsulation of this story. It’s the love between a boy and his dogs, and all that entails.
What is love without perseverance and sacrifice? What are perseverance and sacrifice if not for love? And why can’t we all love as deeply as dogs?
My greatest shock in coming back to this book is what a large role faith plays. There are two faiths at play here: faith in God, and faith in dogs.
Billy prays for a pair of good dogs, though it’s through his own hard work and sacrifice that he obtains them. He asks God for help getting his first coon out of the massive tree, and a sudden wind fells it when his arms have given out. Once his little dogs earn enough money for the family to move to town, Mama says a prayer over the pair of them. When in trouble, a higher power is called upon to make things right. And this all makes sense, given the setting.
As the story progresses, we see Billy placing more and more faith in his dogs and less (by comparison) in prayer. He no longer needs a miracle to catch an elusive raccoon: the dogs will do it themselves, just you watch. In the end, Mama’s prayers have been answered by the hard work of two little dogs and her boy’s faith in them.
We’re hardwired to believe in something, be it an omnipotent power in the sky or a red dog with a wet nose. Faith keeps us going when the road gets rough.
Of course, the book isn’t perfect. The writing is indeed simple, and doesn’t offer much in the way of literary challenge to the adult reader. The plot is predictable. And there are a few “teaching moments” that fall flat. Papa’s advice to Billy after Dan’s gruesome, unexpected death is “I wouldn’t think too much about this if I were you...I believe I’d just try to forget it.” And a “lesson” offered by Mama at the end, said over the dogs’ graves, left a taste in my mouth not unlike decaying flesh: your dogs died because God doesn’t like to see families split up.
So, can an adult come back to Where the Red Fern Grows? If you’re an animal lover, yes. Absolutely. The passages describing Billy’s receipt of the pups, of their training, their hunts, all made my heart swell with love for my own dogs. There were moments where I felt Rawls was actually describing my dogs, not his. I openly wept in a crowded coffee shop as Ann spent her last breath dragging herself to Dan's grave. And yes, for such a slim, simple volume there are reminders to be had about love, and faith, and sacrifice, and never letting go.
But in the end, this is not In Search of Lost Time. I am not going to be shouting from the mountaintops for people to read this. You will not get this book from me for your birthday. Instead, you’ll get an anecdote about how I have three (amazing) dogs because of a book. And how I don’t regret that at all.
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