Friday, March 13, 2015

Where the Red Fern Grows

Where the Red Fern Grows
Wilson Rawls
Random, 1961  249 pgs
Grades 5-8
Historical Fiction/Animal

Welcome to the 1920's Ozark Mountain back country.  Billy lives on a rural farm with his parents and little sisters.  His life-long dream is to own two hunting hounds and his dream leads to obsession.  After two years of sacrifice and doing odd jobs, Billy saves $50, enough to buy the dogs.  His supportive Grandpa, who owns the local general store, helps him secretly order the dogs.  Billy journeys two days to pick the pups up and then back to his country home.  He names the pups Dan and Ann after names he sees carved into a tree and the training begins.  After trapping a raccoon (not an easy feat!) and extensive training, Billy and the dogs are ready to hunt.  They have many nocturnal adventures, outsmarting raccoons and surviving dangerous situations to become the best hunting team in the region.  Local bullies challenge Billy to trap the legendary "ghost coon", a bet which Grandpa backs.  Billy accepts the challenge, which ends in tragedy, though not for Billy or his dogs.  Next Grandpa enters Billy in a hunting contest and the two, along with Billy's dad, travel to participate.  The contest ends in happy results, although not without misfortune.  Billy, Dan, and Ann are an stoppable team until a run-in with a mountain lion presents a challenge even these seasoned champions can't lick.

A beloved children's classic, Where the Red Fern Grows is a staple on summer reading lists, often likened to Sounder and Old Yeller.    I haven't read this book since my childhood, so when one of my Book Worm Club members suggested it as our March pick for book discussion, I though it was time to revisit this old favorite.  The book is set in the 1920s in a rural area, where my kids will not identify, which may prove problematic.  Billy is out by himself hunting all night in dangerous situations, which seems unbelievable in today's world.  Because of the nature of hunting, there is a lot of killing in the book, which also seems jarring by today's standards.  I love Gordon Korman's book No More Dead Dogs.  In this book Korman asks why the dogs always have to die in award winning books about dogs for children?  Where the Red Fern Grows is no exception to this premise.  There are a couple of places that will elicit tears.  There are also many places that will keep the reader on the edge of their seats.  The book itself is consistently written and Billy's voice is strong.  It is a bit dense and the copy I read had very small print, which may put modern readers off.  Boys will prefer it to girls, although I loved it as a child, so girls may like it too.This book offers a slice of life in a long-ago period in American history. I remember my fifth grade teacher reading this book to the class and all of us hanging on every word.  That was in the 1970's in a small town in upstate New York, where hunting was a common practice.  Is this book relevant to suburbia New Jersey in 2015?  I will find out at my next Bookworm Club meeting on Monday evening.

Postscript: The Bookworm Club discussed this book on March 16th.  Even though the print was small and the copies they were given were old and dated looking, most of the members actually read the book.  They loved it!  They were very emotional about the death's of the dogs and felt very connected to the story.  So, Where the Red Fern Grows has proven to me to still be relevant to today's readers and still packs the same punch it did forty years ago, even with young savvy suburbanites.

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