Where the Red Fern Grows

August 27, 2009

where-the-red-fern-grows Plot summary (with spoilers): Ten-year-old Billy Colman lives in the Ozark mountains in Oklahoma during the Depression. One day he is suddenly, and unshakably, struck with puppy-love. He wants a couple of hunting dogs, and begs his parents nonstop. They can’t afford to spend money on dogs, but would be happy to get him a mixed breed puppy from a neighboring farmer whose own dog just had a litter. This doesn’t satisfy Billy at all, since his dream is to go hunting with his dogs in the nearby woods.

One day, Billy finds a sports magazine left behind at a fisherman’s camp. In the classifieds section, he sees an ad for red bone coon hound puppies — just the kind he wants. They cost $25 each, which was a small fortune in those days, and would come all the way from Kentucky. From that point forward, Billy decides that he will work and save all of his money until he can afford the dogs.

Billy does just that, earning nickels and dimes for doing odd jobs like gathering berries for his grandfather or selling fruits and vegetables to fishermen at the camp. Two long years later, he has enough for the dogs. His grandfather writes to the puppy breeder to confirm that they’re still around, and then orders the pups for Billy. A couple of months later, the pups arrive, and Billy couldn’t be happier.

Billy names the dogs Old Dan and Little Ann. He spends hours upon hours training them, and marvels at the distinct personalities he sees in his pups. Old Dan is courageous and brave, with a tendency to rush headlong into danger. Little Ann is smart and cautious, preferring to hold back to see how a situation develops before jumping in. Together, they make a great team.

Soon enough, Billy and his dogs are out hunting raccoons every night. Old Dan and Little Ann get a reputation for being the best coon hounds in the area, and even go on to win a huge tournament that brought together hunters from several states. Along with a gold cup, Billy and his dogs win $300, which is enough to allow the family to move to town, where Billy and his sisters can get a real education.

Liked:

  • The first part of the book, which dealt with Billy’s sheer determination to save money to buy the pups, was terrific reading. We’ve all been kids and know how hard it is to forgo things like candy, pop, and toys, especially when you have ready cash available. But Billy’s desire for dogs clearly outweighed everything else. I immediately got into the story, and wanted Billy to succeed.
  • I loved reading about Billy bonding with Old Dan and Little Ann. There’s something so precious and innocent about a young boy developing such deep attachments to his dogs, and Wilson Rawls was able to capture that feeling perfectly.
  • The deaths of Old Dan and Little Ann were heart-wrenching. Even though I’d read this book several times as a kid and knew exactly what was coming, I couldn’t help tearing up when Old Dan got clawed by the mountain lion. Then when Little Ann basically died of a broken heart and dragged herself to Old Dan’s grave with the last ounce of her strength — well, I lost it.
  • As cheesy as it was, I liked the description of the red fern growing out of Old Dan and Little Ann’s graves. Only an angel could plant the tree, and the ground beneath it was sacred….

Disliked:

  • It’s been so long since I last read this book that I’d forgotten how often Billy cries in it. Seriously, I know he was just a kid, but did he have to cry about every little thing? He couldn’t get a puppy — cry. He got his puppies — cry. He watched his puppies play — cry. His dogs tree their first coon — cry. Little Ann wins the Best in Show contest — cry. And on and on and on. Sheesh!
  • I’d also forgotten how much of the book was devoted to coon hunting. Those chapters were supremely boring this time around, and I ended up skimming much of the descriptions of the dogs running this way and that, crossing and re-crossing the river, etc. Zzzzzzz.
  • I really could have done without the description of how Billy caught his first coon. The thought of a poor raccoon piercing its paw in a trap made up of four nails and being stuck there until Billy could come and bash its head in the next morning was a bit too much for me.

My Rating:

I positively loved Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls when I was a kid, but reading it through adult eyes with an adult perspective yields a whole different experience. Now the flaws overshadow the good parts, and degrade the whole story for me. I give this book 3 stars out of 5.

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