Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, a classic American children’s book, came as a recommendation from a good friend in California.
It’s a book written during the 1950s and is about a much simpler time and way of living a rural life. And this “roam amongst the forests” life is led by the main character, Billy, in the stunning Ozark Mountains that stretch across Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas.
The story too is a simple one: it’s about a boy and his two dogs, Little Ann and Old Dan. Which makes its core a heart-warming, beautiful, innocent tale about how one boy is determined to be the best hunter in the land, and have the best hunting hounds at his side.
There are moments of sheer, gritty determination in the plot – such as when Billy wants to chop down a huge tree to catch a racoon – that show us what kind of boy Billy is. How he stands head and shoulders above his family and his rivals. And there are also some genuinely moving and horrific moments too, which are unexpected but effortlessly included in the narrative.
Which is where I should mention some caveats about the book.
It’s important to remember the context in which you’re reading this story – it was written by a very religious racoon hunter in post-war, 1950s Deep South America. Are you getting me so far? Yes, I’m sure you are. Because some of the language use is very un-PC; the way it talks about women being the “fairer sex” would not pass muster if written and published in today’s enlightened world. There are a lot of quite seemingly cruel descriptions of animals being hunted – so don’t read this book if you may get upset by this. Also, there is a lot of unnecessary mentions of God and how much God influences events which – as I’m not a believer – I had to ignore with gritted teeth.
However, all of the above somehow does not detract from the fact that Where the Red Fern Grows is a very powerful story of perseverance, of a boy coming-of-age and how his relationship with his two hounds is a magical insight into a boy’s “first love”. Or, as the author calls it, the dog-wanting disease because Billy works hard and saves up for two years to buy his hounds.
Just like Enid Blyton is often mentioned today with an exasperated breath, about her Famous Five stories being a bit racist and a bit derivative, this book read today definitely has the potential to be viewed in this way. However, if you are a more confident and experienced teenage reader, you will be able to gloss over the language, historical and cultural contexts to see to the heart of a beautiful story.