29 years. Hard to believe that it has been nearly that long since I last read it (I seem to have a vague recollection of re-reading it sometime just after the classroom reading sessions, but I know it couldn't have been any later than the end of elementary school). Some stories move you, others make you face some very harsh realities. Where the Red Fern Grows belongs to that latter category, for me at least. Wilson Rawls wrote about what he loved, the Ozarks and country life around the turn of the 20th century. When Where the Red Fern Grows was published just over 50 years ago, it quickly became one of "those" books, especially here in the American South. My dad read it when he was about to enter high school and he said it was a very hard book to read, since he grew up on a farm and that my grandfather had dozens of hunting dogs, mostly beagles.
I can remember when I was about 6 or 7, my dad and I went to visit one of my aunts. She lived next door to my grandmother (my grandfather had died when I was 3 months old) and my uncle kept about a half-dozen or so beagles in a kennel down the hill from their house. I remember going over and poking my fingers through the chicken wire and having some sniff my fingers and a few of them trying to lick my small hands. That, along with faint memories of a mixed-breed German Shepard from my first three years of life, are my earliest memories of being around hunting/guard dogs (we had a schnauzer when I was 4-6, but that dog didn't like little me enough for me to have many good memories of him).
Like most boys in my region during the late 1970s/early 1980s, I grew up with dogs. When my parents moved to the outskirts of town in 1980, we lived on an 8 acre, semi-wooded plot. Perfect for a young boy and a dog to go romp about, even if a highway was a quarter-mile away. We had a lot of dogs at this time, after a stray "adopted" us and had her litter. I was about 8 at this time (the schnauzer had run away right after we moved; my parents didn't believe in chaining our dogs) and it was fascinating to see the little pups (I want to say there were 6) nestled around their mother.
But there are downsides to being responsible for outdoor pets. A few of the pups, the runts, were sickly and they soon died. Being that I had just lost my great-grandmother and an uncle suddenly less than a year before, it was a sobering reminder of the fragility of life. Some of the other pups wandered away, eager to explore the world around them, likely encountering death along the highway. I remember two that survived to be full-grown. We named them Bo and Luke, after the popular Dukes of Hazzard show at the time. Bo contracted some sort of illness, one that caused seizures and then a state of paralysis. I remember my dad getting out his shotgun, telling us to stand inside and not to look out, while he went down the road a bit to where Bo had become rigid. I remember the sharp burst of the gun. I did not dare peek out of a window or go outside for hours.
I recall Duke dying on Christmas Day when I was 9. He had suddenly become ill and I think his heart just gave out in our garage. He was barely a year old. He had not survived his brother for long.
Yet during their brief times on this planet, I can remember running about with them, playing chase games. Hugging them and petting them. There is something to be said about the bonds that can develop being humans and dogs. Bonds such as the one Rawls describes in this passage from Ch. 18:
"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."
Bonds such as the ones I've had with the dogs of my childhood, or what young Billy has with Old Dan and Little Ann, contain as much sorrow as they do joy. When my teacher read that aloud, a bunch of us were moved to tears, not as much because of their eventual end, but because each of us found ourselves remembering that playful pawing of our legs, the wag of their tails, the look in their eyes when we would say "good boy" or "good girl." I did not realize it then, but I learned lessons of love through my care for the dogs and their deaths invariably made me sad.
For years, I could not even entertain the thought of re-reading Where the Red Fern Grows. I knew I would break down and tears would flow. Tears that had failed to flow when other family members died. Barriers sometimes are necessary, but they should come down at some point lest they imprison the soul within them. So when Dunja and I agreed to read some of the other's favorite childhood books and review them here, I found myself buying two copies of Where the Red Fern Grows. It was time to re-read one of the most important books of my childhood.
I spent the past few days reading a book that was only 220 e-pages long. I could only bear reading a few chapters a day, as I became lost in memory. Thinking of not just the dogs of my youth, but of more recent ones. Sugar, the white/yellow Lab that we got just after my HS graduation 20 years ago, who got annoyed with another Lab of ours, to the point of shutting her inside the garage after she pawed open the door, shoved the puppy inside, and then closed the door and sat there to prevent the other dog from leaving. I remember her protectiveness, her love for my mother (all of our dogs have loved her the most), and her last years, when she contracted a horrible skin disease that left her smelling awful and with patchy skin that the vet could not cure. I remember Ally, who we had almost 14.5 years, and her mourning when Sugar died of a heart attack at the age of 7.5 in 1999. How she laid down on her grave and would barely move for two weeks after her death. Dogs grieve at least as much as we do. There was something of Little Ann in that gesture.
So many memories flooded back to me as I re-read the chapters. Rawls' writing, with its focus on descriptive narrative, perfectly captures that feeling that many of us raised in the countryside or on the outskirts of town had. There is a sincerity in his writing that makes like-minded readers ache at times, if they are not smiling and remembering their own dogs' antics. Although the plot is rather simple, that of a boy wanting beyond hope two hunting dogs that would be the best in the Ozarks, his execution is pitch-perfect for those who have experienced similar desires. By the time I reached the penultimate chapter, the one with the mountain lion, I was on the verge of losing it, like I knew I would. It was a vicious punch to the gut, even though I knew what was coming. I had to pause for a bit, to make sure my welling eyes did not prevent me from reading. Still a devastating work.
No, that's not quite true. "Devastating" would imply that there's nothing positive to come from it. Perhaps "cathartic" best suits this feeling. In being forced to recall not just the tragic ends of Old Dan and Little Ann but also the dogs my family has kept for over three decades, I also was able to remember those times I shared with them. Maybe that's what Where the Red Fern Grows is strongest. We had to confront the emotions of death and loss, while also realizing, as Billy does years later, that there was something special in that bond between dog and human that endures beyond grief and heartache.
As I finish writing this aside (which naturally grew in the telling), I find myself more at peace now. I have a slight smile, thankful that even though the story brought back memories of grief, it also reawakened memories of my youth that I had thought were too deeply buried for recall. Great stories can do that, no?