Book Review: Where the Red Fern Grows

Where the Red Fern Grows

by Wilson Rawls


304 pages.

Genre: Classic, Middle Grade, Childrens

Age Range: 8 – 12 years old

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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Billy has long dreamt of owning not one, but two, dogs. So when he’s finally able to save up enough money for two pups to call his own—Old Dan and Little Ann—he’s ecstatic. It doesn’t matter that times are tough; together they’ll roam the hills of the Ozarks.
Soon Billy and his hounds become the finest hunting team in the valley. Stories of their great achievements spread throughout the region, and the combination of Old Dan’s brawn, Little Ann’s brains, and Billy’s sheer will seems unbeatable. But tragedy awaits these determined hunters—now friends—and Billy learns that hope can grow out of despair and that the seeds of the future can come from the scars of the past.

First Sentence:  When I left my office that beautiful spring day, I had no idea what was in store for me.

My Thoughts:

I vaguely remember reading this book in grade school back in the 80’s. Even vaguer is the memory of watching the movie.  All I recalled of those memories when my daughter picked this up for me during our annual neighborhood yard sale was that the story made me cry.

Where the Red Fern Grows is a classic that tells the story of Billy, a young boy growing up in the Ozarks, and his two dogs, Old Dan and Little Ann.  At the age of ten, Billy dreams of owning two hunting dogs so that he can go hunting for raccoons, or as the story refers to them, “coons”.

Through lots of hard work, prayer and determination, he finally saves up enough to get two puppies and trains them to be the finest coon hunting dogs in the Ozarks. A good portion of the book is spent accompanying Billy, Old Dan and Little Ann on their hunting adventures, and by the time I finished reading it, I almost felt like I knew enough about raccoon hunting to try it myself. Let it be on record however that I have no interest in testing that feeling.

The time period is either the 1910’s or 1920’s. I lean more toward it being in the 1920’s.  I appreciated— perhaps more now than I did when I read it as a child— visiting that time period and getting a detailed picture of what it was like to live in those days.  Especially being in the super rural area of the Ozarks— away from the headaches of city life, the setting was a breath of fresh air.

Further Thoughts (contains spoilers)

  1. Perhaps it’s just me, but even though Billy didn’t get his dogs until he was 14 (and then it took him almost a year to train them before the first hunt), his character read more to me like a boy at the age of eleven or twelve. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I just had a hard time while I was reading picturing Billy as a teenager who has more than likely just finished the early joys of puberty (deeper voice, etc.).
  2. It would have been awesome if Billy could have had something more than just an ax as a hunting weapon. His mother has a strict rule that he can’t have a gun until the age of 21, but they could have given him a bow and arrow or at the very least a sling-shot as an additional accessory. A projectile weapon of some sort just makes sense if it’s your dogs’ main job to chase a raccoon up a tree (referred to as “treeing”).  Billy’s first raccoon runs up the biggest sycamore tree in the forest and Billy must resort to chopping the majestic tree down just to get the raccoon back down so he can kill it. It seems like a waste of a good tree all for the sake of getting a raccoon skin. Though there is an instance or two when Billy climbs the trees, how many trees does he end up chopping down?  Again, a projectile weapon makes so much more sense.
  3. It was amazing to me to see that the bully kid’s death was handled the way it was. Though it was probably appropriate for the time period, place and culture, I had to work hard to put myself in that world where a kid dying by some other kid’s ax isn’t investigated fully by authorities and the parents aren’t suing the living shit out of someone for liability.  I suppose with that aside, the death did serve as effective foreshadowing of the events to come.
  4. I loved the story of the red fern!  It was beautiful!  I got from that legend the idea that Old Dan and Little Ann were possibly angels sent to Billy by God, who had to leave the world once their mission was accomplished.

Overall, Where the Red Fern Grows is a heartwarming book about friendship, love, and loyalty between a boy and his dogs.  It’s hard not to cry at parts and the ending is simply beautiful.

Favorite Quotes:

“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.”

“There is a little good in all evil.”

“It’s strange indeed how memories can lie dormant in a man’s mind for so many years. Yet those memories can be awakened and brought forth fresh and new, just by something you’ve seen, or something you’ve heard, or the sight of an old familiar face.”

“Men,” said Mr. Kyle, “people have been trying to understand dogs ever since the beginning of time. One never knows what they’ll do. You can read every day where a dog saved the life of a drowning child, or lay down his life for his master. Some people call this loyalty. I don’t. I may be wrong, but I call it love – the deepest kind of love.”

After these words were spoken, a thoughtful silence settled over the men. The mood was broken by the deep growling voice I had heard back in the washout.

“It’s a shame that people all over the world can’t have that kind of love in their hearts,” he said. “There would be no wars, slaughter, or murder; no greed or selfishness. It would be the kind of world that God wants us to have – a wonderful world.”

Final Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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