When we were kids my brother, like most kids in the 70’s, read Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. I’ll never forget it. My older, tougher, cooler brother was reduced to tears, no sobbing, by that book. Maybe that’s why I never read it or saw the movie. That is until this year.
A few months ago, my eleven year old son and I read Where the Red Fern Grows for the first time. Yes, we were reduced to tears, but it was completely worth it. Not only is it a delightful and beautiful story, it is quite possibly the perfect book for a tweenage boy. Sure, girls have enjoyed this book for decades and will continue to do so, but Where the Red Fern Grows is a coming of age story about a boy – a boy named Billy Coleman. Here are the reasons this is such an important book for boys.
- Billy knows his mind. What Billy wants more than anything in the entire world is two (not one, two) coonhound puppies. His parents can’t afford to buy him purebred hunting dogs, but they are willing to let him have one of the neighbor’s collie pups. Okay. If that were my kids (Who am I kidding – if that were me…) we would all buckle at the first mention of an alternative puppy – any puppy. My kids are like me. They want what the want – until something just as good or even almost as good comes along. And then we fold like a cheap suit. Not Billy. He refuses the collie pup and sets his mind to getting those coonhounds.
- Billy is a model of perseverance. We believe in making our kids earn some of the things they want. Instead of always buying things for them, we encourage them to do a few extra chores, save up their birthday money, and dig around under the seats in our SUV for spare change. But Billy takes saving to a whole new level. And he doesn’t just save: he earns. Billy works tirelessly for two years. Two Years. To save up enough money to buy his pups. When he finally does earn the money, he walks 20 miles to get them. Barefoot. I’ve seen my kids walk around a candy wrapper on the floor to keep from picking it up. They could definitely learn a few things from Billy Coleman.
- Billy cries. A lot. Billy cries for happiness. He cries for sadness. He cries in fear. Billy is a very emotional boy. This is exactly why he makes him a wonderful role model for other boys- because boys cry, and they need to see that portrayed as a normal, healthy part of being a kid. In all the times Billy cries, never once is he embarrassed or ashamed by his tears. In fact, Billy’s tears don’t make him any less tough.
- Billy is one tough kid. We start to realize this when he works, literally until his fingers bleed, picking blackberries to earn money to buy his dogs. But we see it time and again the way Billy braves weather, fear, and a massive sycamore tree to protect his dogs or to follow through on a promise. Billy is what today’s kids would call a badass. But this book is much too charming for such a crass term.
- Billy is kind and generous. Billy is kind to his dogs… I could no more have whipped one of them than I could have kissed a girl. After all, a boy just doesn’t whip is dogs…There are so many reasons that I love that quote. He is also kind and generous with his three little sisters. He even promises to give the youngest one the cup he hopes to win from the coonhound competition. But possibly the biggest testament to Billy’s generosity is the fact that he gives all the money he earns from coonskins to his dad. After all, in those two dogs, Billy has everything he ever wanted. Ultimately it is the money Billy wins with his dogs that allows the family to escape poverty and move to town.
- Billy is a praying boy. Billy prays throughout the novel. His first prayer is that God will help him get his pups. And even after working for two years to get them, he still gives God the credit. Billy’s faith is shaken by the tragic deaths of his dogs, but in the end, his faith is restored. Billy relies on God’s help and goodness, but he comes to accept that God does not answer every prayer – at least not the way he wants him to.
- Billy loves his mother. This is Billy’s reaction to witnessing the death of another boy, I suppose it is natural at a time like this for a boy to think of his mother. I thought of mine. I wanted to get home. Did I mention that I cried reading this book a lot more than my son did?
- Billy’s story is simple and natural. For years my son’s favorite books have centered on wizards, Greek demigods, and other fantasy heros and heroines. Those books have been great and a catalyst for his love of reading. Bu there was something incredibly gratifying about reading a good old fashion boy and his dogs story with him. Where the Red Fern Grows is especially meaningful to us because it is set in the Ozark Hills, not far from where we live.
- Billy is independent. Okay, I admit that Billy has a bit more independence than I’d be comfortable with. He roams the Ozark Hills night after night alone with his dogs hunting for coons. But I do admire his ability to take care of himself and to be happy and at peace in his solitude. Billy loves and appreciates the beauty of nature, something I want for my own children. Where the Red Fern Grows is an excellent reminder of life’s simple pleasures for kids whose lives are filled with a constant stream of entertainment and activity.
- Billy grows up. Of course he does. All boys do. And this is a coming of age story. But despite all the lone nights on the hunt and the feats of courage in protection of his dogs, Billy’s biggest growing up moments come when he has to bury, first Old Dan and then Little Ann and then come to terms with their deaths. The last chapters of Where the Red Fern Grows are gut wrenching, but Billy survives the loss of his beloved hounds and goes on – but not without a few tears and some hugs from his mamma.
If you are looking for a book to read with your young son, I highly recommend Where the Red Fern Grows. Just be sure to have a box of tissue handy.
Image source: amazon.com