Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Where the Red Fern Grows: A Boy, Two Dogs and a Pillow Damp With Tears

I've been thinking about Where the Red Fern Grows for about three weeks--ever since the Jackson Hole Writers Conference when Brady Udall (The Lonely Polygamist) interrupted his talk about the structure of storytelling for a five-minute digression on Wilson Rawls' 1961 novel.  Udall had been telling us about how he grew up in a large Mormon family where everyone told stories ("which were essentially lies") and how one of the books that made the deepest impact on him as an early reader was Where the Red Fern Grows.  "It's a story which is built on a simple desire--that of a man longing for his past.  If you remember, it's narrated by an adult who goes on to tell the story of his boyhood with two dogs.  All this storyteller wants to do is return to the hills and valleys and streams of his Ozark youth."

I could tell Udall loved the book as much as I did.

A decade ago, I wrote an appreciation of Where the Red Fern Grows for another website.  I decided to pull it out of storage, blow off the dust, and post it here.  Feel free to chime in with your own thoughts on Where the Red Fern Grows, or whatever book of your youth got you all verklempt.

*     *     *

In 1974, I was skinny, had a bad stutter and dreamed of living in a world populated only with dogs. In my 11-year-old fantasy, dogs would rule the planet, wielding not an iron paw, but a kind of gentle, slobbery democracy: “with liberty, justice and Milk-Bones for all...”  Planet of the Poodles rather than Planet of the Apes.

Short of organizing a Fido for Prez campaign, however, I had to settle for the world in which I lived where two-legged beasts made all the rules.

Still, in my heart, canines were king. Girls had their horses, I had my hounds. To give you some idea of how passionate I was about dogs, let me quote briefly from a semi-autobiographical story I once wrote:

I was immersed in the knowledge of dogs. It was a communion of canis, a baptism of bow-wow. My bedroom walls were papered with posters of St. Bernards, Afghans, Pointers, Dalmatians. Above the head of my bed hung an American Kennel Club chart of all the dog breeds. I referred to it constantly, like the periodic table of elements.

I wrote poems about dogs. I sketched portraits of dogs with No. 2 pencils. I subscribed to magazines like Dog World and Dog Fancy. I checked out boy-and-dog books from the library and read them like illuminated manuscripts. The Gospels According to Old Yeller, Big Red and Lassie.

I had a dog--a one-year-old Labrador Retriever and I shouldn't have to tell you he was my best friend. I went everywhere with that dog and he went everywhere with me. With his oversize paws and warm fur he wore like a baggy suit, he calmed me.  He smoothed my stuttering tongue so I didn’t get stuck, like a revving engine, on m’s and n’s.  He was my tonic and I kept him at my side always.  He couldn't follow me into the post office or the library, but I'd wrap his leash around the bike rack outside and he'd sit there patiently waiting for me.

One day, I emerged from the library holding a book with a scuffed and scratched cover. The binding was loose and many of the pages were (ahem) dog-eared. It had obviously been well-read and well-loved.

Little did I know I was about to join the thousands of readers who read and re-read that book to the point of disrepair. The book was Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls and, at the tender age of 11, I had just discovered my New Testament.

The book affected me in ways that are still difficult to describe.  Some people remember what they were doing when the space shuttle exploded or who gave them their first kiss or how they felt when they were robbed at gunpoint for the first time.  Me, I remember holding Where the Red Fern Grows and thinking how the protective mylar cover was sticky and grimy from a hundred hands which had gone before me.  And I remember the autumn colors of that cover, the boy and his dogs walking through a leafy forest.  And I remember thinking this book had a strange, girly title for a story about coon-hunting.

When I walked out of the library that day, Fern tucked under my arm, I had no idea what was in store for me. I untied my dog and we walked home--me humming an aimless, happy tune; him, panting and bumping the side of my leg with an impatient "let's-frolic" nudge. I looked down and shook my head. "Sorry. Can't play right now. I've got this new book to read." He licked my hand, as if he understood.  Later, he came into the bedroom with me and curled against my feet as I opened the pages of that battered, hand-grimed book.

It didn't take me long to realize I was reading my new Canis Gospel. There, at the start of Chapter Two, were these words:

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.

I was ten years old when I first became infected with this terrible disease. I'm sure no boy in the world had it worse than I did. It's not easy for a young boy to want a dog and not be able to have one. It starts gnawing on his heart, and gets all mixed up in his dreams. It gets worse and worse, until finally it becomes almost unbearable.

Reading those paragraphs now, they resound with treacly sentiment.  But back then, in 1974, I sat up, fully alert. Mr. Rawls was writing about me. His words struck a tuning fork inside me and I started humming along.  I had no trouble imagining I was a boy named Billy with an unbearable case of puppy love.

I read on, transfixed and breathless. My mother called me for dinner, I asked to be served in my room. My father said "Let's go for a family drive," I said "Go without me." My dog went unfed, I felt only the slightest guilt. As far as I was concerned, I was out chasing raccoons in the Ozark mountains with a boy and his two dogs.

For those who never read the book or saw the movie, Where the Red Fern Grows is the standard boy-and-his-dog story that another of my favorite authors, Jim Kjelgaard, was fond of writing about. What sets Rawls' book apart from Kjelgaard's classics like Big Red and Outlaw Red, is the gentle, homespun tone that settles over the pages like molasses.

Similar to an episode of The Waltons, Rawls' book is set in Oklahoma during the 1930s. It tells the story of young Billy who, as I already pointed out, has puppy love in the worst way. His family can't afford the kind of coon hounds Billy wants, so the boy works hard for two years to earn enough money ($40) to send away for the dogs he saw advertised in the newspaper.

He then walks about 40 miles (barefoot!) to the train depot to claim his mail-order hounds. Along the way, he encounters a gang of town bullies which leads to one of the many life-lessons Rawls seems to draw from his own childhood. The book is as much about finding your place in the world as it is about finding the right kind of dog to have by your side.

Billy arrives at the depot and, finally, the long-awaited moment arrives when the stationmaster uncrates the dogs:
      Getting a claw hammer, he started tearing off the top of the box. As nails gave way and boards splintered, I heard several puppy whimpers. I didn't walk over. I just stood and waited.
      After what seemed like hours, the box was open. He reached in, lifted the pups out, and set them down on the floor.
      "Well, there they are," he said. "What do you think of them?"
      I didn't answer. I couldn't. All I could do was stare at them.
      They seemed to be blinded by the light and kept blinking their eyes. One sat down on his little rear and started crying. The other one was waddling around whimpering.
      I wanted so much to step over and pick them up. Several times I tried to move my feet, but they seemed to be nailed to the floor. I knew the pups were mine, all mine, yet I couldn't move. My heart started acting like a drunk grasshopper. I tried to swallow and couldn't.

Billy names the dogs Old Dan and Little Ann (after seeing the names carved in a heart on a sycamore tree) and the three become inseparable. There are coon hunts, cracker-barrel advice from Grandpa, deaths, and a final tragic confrontation with a mountain lion. Rawls details the trio's ensuing adventures with such sensitivity and detail that there's little doubt he's writing directly from the heart.

The story builds to such a sad, "say-it-isn't-so" conclusion that I had to set it aside several times before I reached the last page. My nose prickled with the onset of tears and it was only a matter of time before my pillow got all soggy.  I sat up in bed, reached forward and scratched my dog’s ears. “C’mon, boy,” I said in a husky voice, “let’s go outside and throw a Frisbee for a little bit.”

But when I came back half an hour later, the scuffed-cover book was waiting for me in the same place I’d left it. I drew a shaky breath and lay back down, my head on my unbearable pillow, my dog at my feet.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s confession time:

Where the Red Fern Grows is the only book I’ve ever read (and, remember, I read like you breathe) that has made me cry. I struggled through the last 15 pages, my throat seizing up and great salty tears waterfalling off my cheeks. My dog looked up, whined, and nosed the side of my foot. “It’s okay, boy,” I whispered.

But it was not okay. I would never be okay from that moment on. Mr. Rawls had built a door for me to step through—from endlessly-happy boyhood to the cautious world of adults where sorrow could rise up quickly and strike like a viper. Since then, I’ve done my fair share of crying at movies* but I have never ever shed a tear over the printed word since that day 26 years ago. Somehow, Rawls makes the reader so attached to this boy and his dogs that when there is sorrow and loss on the page, there is also sorrow and loss in the reader’s heart. It is catharsis to the nth degree.

[*The Scene: The lobby of the Teton Theater in Jackson, Wyoming.
The Time: 9 p.m. on a summer’s night in 1975. The 7 p.m. show has just ended.
The Action: David Abrams is being carried—yes, carried!—out of the theater by his parents, one on each arm. David is sobbing, blubbering beyond all control. It is a Biblical wailing and gnashing of teeth. He is an embarrassment to all who know him.
The Movie?: Well, duh. Where the Red Fern Grows.]

Brief website research reveals that Wilson Rawls spent a dirt-poor childhood in Oklahoma and was an eighth-grade dropout. Inspired by Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, the young Rawls dreamed of someday writing a book that generations would treasure. At the time, he was too poor to even buy paper and pencils.

As an adult, he started writing stories, but he soon got discouraged because of his lack of education. No publisher would buy a story that was filled with spelling and grammar errors. In complete despair, he burned all of his manuscripts. When his wife learned of this, she asked him to write one of them again--for her sake, if nothing else.

He sat down and, for the next three weeks, he wrote nonstop—not even pausing for punctuation—and churned out a 35,000-word manuscript. He gave it to his wife and left the house, unable to face what he thought would be her disappointment in him.

Disappointment? Hardly!

His wife cleaned up the grammar and together they submitted it to Saturday Evening Post which then serialized that “disappointing” story. Doubleday quickly picked up on it and published the tale in 1961—thirteen years before a dog-brained boy in Wyoming walked out of the county library with a copy of that same book under his arm.

Wilson Rawls only published one other book, Summer of the Monkeys, before his death in 1984.

As a postscript, let me add that Where the Red Fern Grows has continued to reverberate to the next generation of readers. Two months ago, my 11-year-old daughter brought a copy of the book home with her from the school library. Its cover was creased, its pages were dog-eared.

I was with her when she finished reading that book. We were driving home from the supermarket and she finally got up the courage to read those last 15 pages. I drove in silence, the air between us fragile and moist. When I dared to sneak a glance at her, she’d closed the book and was staring wordlessly out the window. A single tear—the first of many—was working its way down her cheek.


  1. This is one of my husband's favourite movies from his childhood. Some things just never grow old.

  2. Well, I cried just reading this. At work.

  3. I have a vivid memory of my younger sister standing in the kitchen wailing and nearly hysterical, my mother asking what on earth happened? My sister holds out her copy of Where the Red Fern Grows and says "the dogs died!!" My mother hugged her but couldn't quite stifle a laugh at this poor crying child. We recount this story at most family holidays, and make sure every child born into our clan gets his or her copy to read. Box of tissues and consoling hugs at the ready of course.