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“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 it loyalty. I don’t. I may be wrong, but I call it love—the deepest kind of love,” Mr. Kyle. –Where the Red Fern Grows
Where the Red Fern Grows
by Wilson Rawls
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, he’s ecstatic. Soon, Billy and his hounds become the finest hunting team in the valley. But tragedy awaits these determined hunters—now friends—and in time, Billy learns that hope can grow out of despair.
Where the Red Fern Grows is a beloved classic that captures the powerful bond between man and man’s best friend. It will stand the test of time as long as there are boys and girls who love their dogs—and dogs who love them.
Where the Red Fern Grows has been taught in schools for decades because of its message and endearing characters. The story is told through Billy’s point of view, which allows the reader to connect with Billy and understand his emotions. Anyone who has loved a pet will connect with Billy and his dogs—Old Dan and Little Ann. Billy works hard in order to earn enough money to buy his dogs. When he brings Old Dan and Little Ann home, Billy spends almost every night hunting with them. These experiences show the two dogs’ dedication to each other and to Billy, which is why many readers will cry at the story’s conclusion.
Throughout the story, Billy has positive interactions with his family, including his grandfather. Through his interactions with his family, his dogs, and others, Billy’s character slowly unfolds. Billy clearly loves nature, his dogs, hunting and his family. The detailed descriptions of the Ozark Mountains highlight Billy’s love of nature as well as his belief in God. As Billy struggles to understand his world, he often seeks out his parents in order to ask questions about God. In the end, Old Dan and Little Ann were an answer to Billy’s prayers and his mother’s prayers. While the conclusion is likely to cause tears, it effectively highlights the selflessness of love.
Despite the positive aspects of the story, some readers will struggle to understand the culture of the Ozark Mountains during the 1920s and may be upset by the bloody hunting scenes. Unlike many books today, Where the Red Fern Grows isn’t an action-packed story, but instead draws the reader in slowly and makes them fall in love with Old Dan and Little Ann. As a coming-of-age story, Where the Red Fern Grows illustrates the importance of hard work, dedication, and love. The story also focuses on themes of family, sacrifice, God, and death. As Billy matures, he learns valuable life lessons, which are still applicable to today’s readers.
- Billy sees a pack of dogs attack another dog. “Twisting and slashing, he found his way through the pack and backed up under the low branches of a hedge. Growling and snarling, they formed a half moon circle around him. . . He came out so fast he fell over backwards. I saw his right ear was split wide open.” Billy swung his coat at the dogs, and they scattered and left.
- When Billy went into town, a group of boys ganged up on him. The leader of the group “stomped on” Billy’s foot. Billy “looked down and saw a drop of blood ooze out of a broken nail.”
- Billy stands up to one of the town boys. His fist “smacked on the end of Freck’s nose. With a grunt he sat down in the dusty street.” His nose begins to bleed. Then the other kids gang up on Billy. Billy tries to fight, but there are too many of them. “By sheer weight and numbers, they pulled me down. I managed to twist on my stomach and buried my face in my arms. I could feel them beating and kicking my body.”
- When the marshal sees the kids beating Billy, the marshal planted “a number-twelve boot in the seat of the last kid.” The fight scene is described over two pages.
- When a coon gets stuck in one of Billy’s traps, his puppies bark at it. The male pup got too close and “the coon just seemed to pull my pup up under his stomach and went to work with tooth and claw.” The female pup helps her brother. “Like a cat in a corn crib, she sneaked in from behind and sank her needle sharp teeth in the coon’s back.”
- Billy and his family go back to see the trapped coon. Billy’s dad “whacked the coon a good one across the head. He let out a loud squall, growled, and showed his teeth. . . Papa whacked him again and it was all over.”
- Often Billy describes Old Dan and Little Ann killing a coon. For example, while coon hunting, Little Ann caught a coon and “the coon was all over her. He climbed up on her head, growling, slashing, ripping and tearing. Yelping with pain, she shook him off . . .” The coon escapes, but the dogs find him again. “They stretched Old Ringy out between them and pinned him to the ground. It was savage and brutal. I could hear the dying squalls of the coon and the deep growls of Old Dan.”
- Billy and two boys, Rubin and Rainie, get into an argument. Ruben “just grabbed me and with his brute strength threw me on the ground. He had me on my back with my arms outspread. He had one knee on each arm. I made no effort to fight back. I was scared. . . He jerked my cap off, and started whipping me in the face with it.”
- Little Ann and Old Dan get into a fight with another dog. Billy “could see that Little Ann’s jaws were glued to the throat of the big hound. She would never loosen that deadly hold until the last breath of life was gone.”
- Rubin accidentally falls on his axe. As Rubin lays dying, he asks Billy to remove the axe. Billy “saw his hands were curled around the protruding blade as if he himself had tried to pull it from his stomach.” Billy pulls the axe out and “The blood gushed. I felt the warm heat as it spread over my hand. . .” Rubin tries to talk but, “words never came. Instead, a large red bubble slowly worked its way out of his mouth and burst. He fell back to the ground. I knew he was dead.”
- While hunting, a coon fights back. The coon “had climbed up on her [Little Ann’s] back and was tearing and slashing. . . Old Dan came tearing in. . . . When the coon was dead, Papa picked it up. . .”
- A bobcat attacks Billy and his dogs. Billy “was in the middle of it all, falling, screaming, crying and hacking away at every opportunity. . .” Billy hits the bobcat with his axe and “the heavy blade sank with a sickening sound. The keen edge cleaved through the tough skin.”
- Old Dan tries to protect Billy and Little Ann. “Old Dan, spewing blood from a dozen wounds, leaped high in the air. His long, red body sailed in between the outspread paws of the lion. I heard the snap of his powerful jaws as they closed on the throat.” The bloody attack is described over six pages. The bobcat is killed and Old Dan dies from his wounds.
Drugs and Alcohol
- When Billy went to town to pick up his dog, he saw a drunk.
- When getting ready to go on a trip, Billy’s grandfather packs “corn liquor.”
- Damn is used three times. For example, when Billy asks his grandfather to help him purchase the dogs, his grandfather said, “Well, Son, it’s your money. . .You got it honestly, and you want some dogs. We’re going to get those dogs. Be damned! Be damned!”
- When Billy doesn’t want to kill an old coon, a boy says Billy is “chicken-livered.”
- Twice, the female dog, Little Ann, is referred to as a bitch.
- Billy hears two screech owls. He believes this means he will have bad luck.
- Billy finds a red fern growing over Old Dan’s and Little Ann’s graves. According to an Indian legend, “only an angel could plant the seeds of a red fern, and that they never died, where one grew, that spot was sacred.”
- Throughout the story, when Billy is in a difficult situation, he prays. For example, Billy tries to cut down a huge tree in order to catch the coon hiding in it. He is about to give up, when he decides to pray, “Please God, give me the strength to finish the job. I don’t want to leave the big tree like that. Please help me finish the job.” A wind blows the tree down and Billy believes that God sent the wind.
- Billy takes care of a stray dog. When the dog is ready, he left. The dog “was going home to the master he loved, and with the help of God, he would make it.”
- When Billy was a kid, he wanted two hunting dogs. When Billy comes up with a plan to get the dogs, he thinks, “The good Lord figured I had hurt enough, and it was time to lend a helping hand.” Billy finds a magazine with an ad selling hound dogs.
- When Billy begins saving money for his hound dogs, he “remembered a passage from the Bible my mother had read to us: ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ I decided I’d ask God to help me. . . I asked God to help me get two hound pups.”
- After Billy is able to save the money to buy two dogs, he thinks, “I knew He [God] had surely helped, for He had given me the heart, courage, and determination.”
- Billy’s mother “prays every day and night” for the family to have enough money to move into town so Billy and his sisters can get an education.
- When Billy tells his mother about all of the events that led to him getting his dogs, she asks, “Do you believe God heard your prayers and helped you?” Billy replies, “Yes, Mama. I know He did and I’ll always be thankful.”
- When Billy runs toward the house yelling, his mother thinks a snake bit him. When she finds out that he is fine, she says, “Thank God.”
- When Billy goes hunting, his mother says, “I’ll pray every night you’re out.”
- Billy’s mom says that God doesn’t answer every prayer. “He only answers the ones that are said from the heart. You have to be sincere and believe in Him.”
- Billy believes that nature is a “God-sent gift.”
- After his dogs die, Billy wonders why God allowed it to happen. His mother says, “At one time or another, everyone suffers. Even the Good Lord suffered while he was here on earth.”
- Billy’s father tells him, “The Good Lord has a reason for everything.”
- Billy’s parents believe that Old Dan and Little Ann were an answer to prayers. Even their deaths served a purpose. Billy’s father believes that Old Dan and Little Ann are in heaven.