I cannot remember the first time I read Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls. I read it at about age ten, and I have lost count of how many times I read it since. It was a period in my life when childhood was nearly over, but adolescence had not yet set in, and it was a time when animals were my greatest love.
Where the Red Fern Grows is a novel about a young boy and his two dogs, but to an animal-lover, it is much more. The story is told in the first person narrative, by an adult reminiscing about his childhood; the reader experiences life through the eyes of an eleven year old boy living in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. Over the boy's shoulder, an older narrator frequently speaks while the younger narrator talks on. Billy, as a boy, wants a dog more than anything else in the world:
"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 who 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 . . . I was ten years old when I first became infected with this terrible disease" (Rawls 7).
Ater secretly saving money that he earns doing odd jobs for over two years, Billy is able to purchase his dream: a pair of registered redbone coon hound pups at twenty five dollars each. He names the dogs "Old Dan" and "Little Ann" from the names Dan and Ann that he saw carved in the middle of a heart on an old sycamore tree. Before buying the pups, Billy remembers a passage from the Bible his mother had read to him: "God helps those who help themselves" (Rawls 18). This passage states the thematic foundation of Where the Red Fern Grows: Billy works for something he wants, learns the true meaning of love, and grows up a great deal in the meantime.
As a child I read Where the Red Fern Grows for its adventures and the profound love Billy has for his two dogs. Billy and his dogs go hunting every night and play in the river during the day. Since I felt I was somewhat of a tomboy, and had two dogs of my own, this greatly appealed to me. The suspense I felt whenever the dogs treed a coon, or the time Grandpa was lost in the blizzard and the dogs found him, never ceased each time I read the book. As I re-read it now, however, I can see that there are many more factors that appealed to me, but I did not realize it at the time.
This is a book about love -- not only human love for an animal, but the love of a parent for a child, a man for his home, and a special love between two animals. Billy's family is extremely close-knit. His mother teaches Billy and his two sisters to read and write because the school is too far away, and when he turns eleven. Billy's father lets him help out in the fields. To complete the happy nest. Grandpa lives right down the road, and has the family over every Sunday afternoon for supper. There is security in this atmosphere of love. After leaving home for three days to pick up the puppies, Billy's mother breaks down and cries at his return -- this is punishment enough for Billy, and he feels real remorse for hurting his parents (Rawls 50). When Old Dan and Little Ann tree their first coon in the biggest tree in the forest, Billy keeps his promise to them and chops the tree down over a period of two days with help from his father and grandpa (Rawls 81). Most importantly of all, the two dogs have a bond between them that (as I child) I felt no human being would understand. When Little Ann almost drowns in the frozen river, Old Dan stays by her and licks her until she is warm (Rawls 120). There is real sadness in this book too: after Old Dan is attacked by the mountain lion and dies shortly afterward. Little Ann refuses to eat and lies on Old Dan's grave for days until she ultimately dies from grief (Rawls 237). But this scene dramatizes unconditional love.
This is an ideal book for a child because it portrays an ideal family. It may be argued that this ideal is unattainable, but it can serve as a role-model for both children and parents alike. Billy is a genuine little boy who is always ready for an adventure, but he is respectful of his elders, and does not want to see any person suffer. When the local bully, Rubin Pritchard, who has threatened to kill Billy's dogs, freakishly dies by falling on Billy's ax, Billy takes flowers to his grave and does not go hunting for weeks (Rawls 150). When Billy wins three hundred dollars in the regional coon hunt, he gives the money to his parents (Rawls 216). His behavior is realistic, but uncommon, especially in children today.
The patience and understanding that Billy's parents display is something all parents should strive for. Near the end of the story, when both dogs have died, Billy's father explains to him that the dogs have fulfilled two prayers: Billy's prayer to have two dogs to care for and hunt with, and his parents' prayer for guidance about what to do with the dogs when they moved to town. Upon showing Billy the large box of money they will use for moving, his father says,
"because of your dogs, [our] prayers have been answered. This is the money earned by Old Dan 'and Little Ann. I've managed to make the farm feed us and clothe us and I've saved every cent your furs brought in. We now have enough. I think it is a miracle."
He offers a consoling explanation for why the dogs were taken away:
"We decided that when we moved to town we'd leave you here with your grandpa, but I guess the Good Lord didn't want that to happen. He doesn't like to see families split up. That's why they were taken away" (Rawls 240).
While Billy is at first distraught about the death of his dogs, the sympathy and comfort that his parents give him help him survive this ordeal. As a child, I became very involved in the book and I cried right along with Billy.
As an adult, and a parent, upon reading the book today, I still cry with Billy, but I also cry with his parents. Not only do the mother and father feel grief for the two dogs, they are anguished as they watch their son suffer over this first loss and look for ways to help him. Billy is only a little boy, and although his emotions are very real, he will grow up, and have many problems that will make this grief fade. Meanwhile Billy's parents are making a probably irretrieval decision to give up their farm and move to another part of the country. I still love the book, perhaps even more now because I see the valuable lessons it taught me as a child about love, pain, understanding, and learning. The book probably held special meaning for me because I once had two dogs die within the same week when I was fourteen years old - needless to say, this prompted me to read the book once again then.
The happy somehow mythic ending of the book is its most intriguing attribute. When Old Dan and Little Ann die, Billy buries their bodies on a hill near the farmhouse. Several months later, the following Spring, Billy and his family leave the Ozarks to move to the city. Just-before leaving, he pays a visit to the graves of his beloved dogs. When he gets to the graves, he is astonished to see a large red fern growing between the two mounds:
"I had heard the old Indian legend about the red fern. How a little Indian boy and girl were lost in a blizzard and had frozen to death. In the spring, when they were found, a beautiful red fern had grown up between their two bodies. The story went on to say that only an angel could plant the seeds of a red fern, and that they never died; where one grew, that spot was sacred" (Rawls 246).
As the adult narrator reminisces about the red fern, he tells us, "I know it is still there [today], for in my heart I believe the legend of the sacred red fern" (Rawls 249).
The author, Wilson Rawls, grew up in a small town in the north-eastern hills of Oklahoma, where his mother taught him and his sisters to read and write (Ward & Marquardt 224). Rawls claims that the book which changed his life was "a story about a man and a dog -- Jack London's Call of the Wild. [As a boy], I decided that I would like to write a book like Call of the Wild" (Commire 206). Rawls is said to have had a minimal education and come from a family too poor to buy writing materials when he was very young. Rawls wrote Where the Red Fern Grows as a young man, but destroyed the first manuscript. It was not until years later that his wife talked him into rewriting one of his novels. He chose Where the Red Fern Grows because "it was based on my boyhood life" (Commire 206). Rawls apparently felt compelled to pass on, through Billy, his memories.
Where the Red Fern Grows contains constructive ethical lessons. It has adventure, suspense, love, sadness, and a happy ending; all the characters experience pain, and grow up a great deal. I enjoyed reading the book again after all these years, and I will undoubtedly urge my children to read it when they get older. Where the Red Fern Grows is a timeless poignant child's book.