Where the Red Fern Grows

by Wilson Rawls

Conditional Recommendation: An engaging tale of friendship and adventure shared by a boy and his two hound dogs.

Age: Middle Grade
Series: Stand Alone
Paperback: 249 pages
Publisher: Doubleday (1961)
Genre: Adventure, Animal

Awards: Massachusetts Children’s Book Award (1987), North Dakota Children’s Choice Award (1981).

Reading this book again as an adult in no way lessens the impact of this story. The writing is fun to read, the relationships are heartwarming, and the adventures Billy has with his dogs make for an enjoyable experience. This is truly a book for all ages!

Summary from the Publisher

A loving threesome, they ranged the dark hills and river bottoms of Cherokee country. Old Dan had the brawn. Little Ann had the brains, and Billy had the will to make them into the finest hunting team in the valley. Glory and victory were coming to them, but sadness waited too. Where the Red Fern Grows is an exciting tale of love and adventure you’ll never forget.

An Enduring Theme

Loving relationships—those of family and dogs—are the dominate theme of this book. Billy’s family care about one another, support one another, bear burdens together, and show each other acts of kindness throughout the entire book. It’s wonderful and refreshing to read about a healthy family.

The relationships we have with animals are varied but timeless. Billy’s close bond with his two dogs, Old Dan and Little Ann, make their adventures together rich and good. Time and again Billy displays selfless love and loyalty toward his dogs—they bring out the best in him.

There’s a subtle but good theme of God answering prayers and working all things together for good. You’ll have to watch for this theme as you read and see how the instances of answered prayer weave together.

Goodness and Truth
  • Hard work – Billy spends an admirable two years doing what odd jobs he can to save for his two dream dogs. He sacrifices short-term pleasures and comforts to achieve his goal. His dedication and hard work are praiseworthy and demonstrate an attitude of endurance for long-term gratification.
  • Honor – Billy maintains a strict code of honor throughout the whole book in that he does everything in his power to keep his promises. His word means something and that’s a trait often lost in today’s culture. For example, he tells his dogs if they tree a coon, he’ll take care of the rest and he keeps his word to them even though they trapped the coon in the biggest tree and it takes Billy days to cut it down.
  • Responsibility – Billy never fails to take care of his dogs nor does he ever shirk his chores or family responsibilities because he’s too consumed with his own pursuits. He saves his money, spends it wisely, and takes care of what’s in his stewardship be it tool or dog.
  • Respect for authority – Billy has very healthy relationships with his parents and his grandpa. He always acts respectfully towards them and holds them in high regard because of his love for them. He also has a healthy fear of sheriffs.
  • Generosity – Billy shares most of the candy he gets with his sisters. When he goes to town, he buys gifts for his family with his hard-earned money. He gives his coon hunting trophies to his sisters.
Language Well-Used

This good book is engaging, tugs on your heart strings and is well written. I particularly appreciate how well-rounded the story is with foreshadowing in the beginning coming full circle into the ending. Overall, the story has just the right dashes of reality, goodness, sadness and humor—which makes it a great book to read aloud!

Memorable Characters

Billy – If you’ve read the Goodness & Truth section you’ll see that most of the goodness of this book is rooted in Billy. He’s a character of morals. He’s good, kind, hard working, loyal, and sincere. He loves greatly and selflessly. He’s an excellent role model.

Old Dan and Little Ann – Wilson Rawls characterizes the dogs so well that you feel they’re friends, not dogs. Each is dog is distinct and interesting, and add color to the story.

Grandpa – Billy’s grandpa is something of a best friend to him. Billy confides in him, trusts his advice, and shares a loving relationship with him. Grandpa is a humorous character and perhaps an ideal of what a grandfather should be to a young boy.

Billy’s Family – Billy has a dad who’s present, hard working, and involved in his life. His mother is much the same though she’s a typical worrier as she’s constantly concerned about his safety and health. His sisters don’t appear much in the story but when they do they often annoy him; regardless, he loves them and repeatedly displays that love.

A Lasting Experience

The story of Billy working hard to earn his dogs, train them, and coon hunt with them as he grows from a 10-year-old boy to a 14-year-old young man is so full of goodness and adventure that it lingers in your mind long after it’s over.

A Satisfying Ending

The ending is heart-breaking but with hope—it’s just right.

Spiritual Content

There’s more spiritual content in this book than I was expecting. Billy and his mom talk about God and Billy prays to God. God is portrayed as someone who hears and answers prayers and I love that aspect of this book!

  • “I remembered a passage from the Bible my mother had read to us: ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ I thought of the words. I mulled them over in my mind. I decided I’d ask God to help me. There on the banks of the Illinois River, in the cool shade of the tall white sycamores, I asked God to help me get two hound pups. It wasn’t much of a prayer, but it did come from the heart.” (pg 18) The concept and common phrase, “God helps those who help themselves,” is not in the Bible and Billy couldn’t have possibly read it there. The phrase is an overused lie of religious culture.
  • As Billy is appreciating his dogs and naming them, he realizes how all the pieces came together just right for him to get his dogs and give them the right names. He thinks, “Yes, it was all there like a large puzzle. Piece by piece, each fit perfectly until the puzzle was complete. It could not have happened without the help of an unseen power.” (pg 48)
  • When Billy takes on the task of cutting down the giant tree to get his first coon, the effort becomes too much for him and he prays that God would give him the strength to finish the job. Right after his prayer, as he’s preparing to chop again, a mysterious wind knocks the mostly cut tree over, finishing the job for him. Billy recognizes it as an answered prayer. There are a number of instances where Billy prays for help and receives an answer not long after.
  • Billy’s mom prays for Billy’s safety and all the time for the means to move her family out of the rustic hill and into town so her children could receive an education. In keeping with the theme of God answering prayers, her requests are answered by the end through the culmination of Billy’s prayers being answered.
Recommendation Note

The descriptive gore in this book is not for every reader. I could barely stomach these two scenes: 1. a boy falls on an axe and it lodges in his stomach, leading to his death and 2. a dog gets cut on the abdomen and his innards get tangled in a bush.

Where to Find this Book: Amazon* or your local library!

*This post may contain affiliate link(s). See full disclosure on legal page.