Words That Sustain Me: Where The Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls


Wilson Rawls (1913-1984), grew up in the Ozark Mountains of Oklahoma. The area was so rural that there were no schools for him to attend, so his mother taught him how to read and write. He says that reading The Call Of The Wildchanged his life and convinced him to become a writer. Rawls was embarrassed by his poor grammar and punctuation – a result of growing up without any paper on which to practice writing. His embarrassment caused him to destroy an early copy of the semi-autobiographical Where The Red Fern Grows. Raul’s love of writing triumphed over his fear, however, and he became a celebrated author of fiction for young adults

What books have made you? What books have sustained you? What books can cut straight into your heart every time you read them, even if you have read them a hundred times? What books helped you discover your love for story telling

I was born in west Texas in 1969, and attended William B. Travis Elementary, on the south side of Midland, TX from first to fifth grades. The two favorite places for me at Traviswere the recess yard and the school library. Each week my class would go to the library and we would be allowed to check out books. We also eagerly accepted the little book order catalogs we would be given at the library. I remember finding books that I wanted in these catalog and taking home and asking my mom if I could have these books? My beloved parents never told me no when it come to buying books and I always got the books I wanted. Looking back, I do not remember my mother being a book reader. My father would read the Bible and I remember getting up early in the morning and finding him in his easy chair having coffee and reading Scripture. So, I can say that my love for books, for story telling goes back to that little old school in dusty west Texas

In seventh grade, English class we were assigned to read Where The Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls. I remember the table in the classroom that was filled with 4.5 x 7 inch, paperback sized, hardback copies of this book. Each student was given a copy of the book and we had to read it during that sixweek period. I recall being intimidated by the book’s thickness! I think it was maybe 1.5 thick? I’d never read a book that long and thought to myself, this book will take forever to read!I laugh at this now, because I love books that are a thousand pages long

My childhood in Midland was a mix of both city living and rural living as well. We lived on the outskirts of town, in a business area of the city. The lots were an acre in size and our house sat at the front, and we had a small office to one side and behind the fenced yard surrounding our three bedroom house was a large area where my father kept his roofing and construction trucks, equipment and materials. We always had dogs in our family. The first dog I remember was Supper, who was a not very brave black and tan German Shepherd. Then we got an all white German Shepherd Dad bought my brother Joe for one hundred dollars. Sometimes we’d have more than one dog and there was a time when we even had some banty hens and a banty rooster, and two ducks! I was raised with dogs, knew the delight of having a puppy, of learning how to train her and work with her so that she was obey commands

Where The Red Fern Grows” is a classic tale of a boy and his dogs, set in the Ozarks, it is deeply moving in its lessons about life and loyalty. It was written in 1961, and it changed my life. I had never read a book that would transport me from the world that I lived in, into a world it contained. I had never read a book that made me feel so deeply, that It seemed like I was experiencing the love and joy and celebration that the characters accomplished. Nor had I ever read a classic that would make me weep because of the losses that the characters in the story experienced

I do not claim to have a good memory in general. If emotion [or trauma!] is not associated with it I will likely fade from my mind. That is just the way that I am. Yet, I can remember forty years ago sitting on the bed in my room that I grew up in, reading this book. I remember the amazement that I felt at some of the incredible things the characters did in this story. I remember the bitter tears and grief I felt at some of the losses. At the hate I felt at the villains in this tale and the fear that I felt when I realized what was probably going to happen. And to the sobbing tears that I cried when the worst thing possible happened. oooh, it was heartbreaking for a young boy and I was hooked for life on great stories told through awesome books

For me, where The Red Fern Grows is a classic story that appeals to my upbringing, my love for dogs, to my willingness to wade into a fight, consequences be damned, to save one of my dogs. Because I have had a dog who would have given his life to protect me, and on more than one occasion defended and protected me

Page one, of Chapter one begins in such a way that I can imagine myself doing exactly what the main character did when he came across a pack of dogs ganging up on one poor unfortunate old redbone hound who was fighting for his life. I felt my throat get tight when I recently reread this treasured book, and in the first pages the main character is able to see the poor condition the redbone hound was in, half starved and foot sore from his long travels. I loved how the writer layed out the story in the first chapter, giving the reader clues to the fantastic tale, such as the line,

“It’s hard for a man to stand by a watch an old hound fight against such odds, especially if that man has memories in his heart like I had in mine. I had seen the time when an old hound like that had given his life so that I might live.” 

How the writer touched upon the fact that memories can lie dormant in a man’s mind for so many years. Yet those memories can be awakened and brought forth fresh and new, just by something you’ve seen, or something you’ve heard, or the sight of an old familiar face. Or, like in my case, in reading a beloved book again and having the book bring to life the wonderful memories of my dogs that I have had in my life and the fierce love and loyalty we had for eachother. 

I love this book where The Red Fern Grows and it is quite possibly my all time favorite book in the world. The story is laid out in the chapters of a poor country boy who has a,”wonderful disease of puppy love…the real kind, the kind that has four small feet and a wiggly tail.” And how that boy is able to get those puppys he can’t live without. I was touched by the references to, “the good Lord” and the praying and asking Him for help. I can hear the echos of my own father’s voice and how the lingo and turn of phrases that are peppered throughout the book harken back to another time. Another generation, the one my dad was a young man in. 

The tale proceeds to create images in perfect detail of the training of coon hounds and the excitement of all night hunts the boy and his beloved redbone hounds enjoyed. There is drama and suspense and the story starts to climax in chapter fourteen, when the boy, his hounds, his papa and grandpa participate in a “Championship Coon Hunt.” Finally ending in such a terrible loss, that I feel cold fingers of sadness and grief squeezing my heart at just the thought of the magnificent sacrifice that is given at the end. 

I read where The Red Fern Grows again last Sunday afternoon. In about 6 hours I reread the book and even though I knew where the sad parts were, it made me cry three times! The love that boy has for his family, for his hounds; and the love and loyalty those two little redbone hounds had for him takes my breath away. I’ve read the book again three more times during the week and am in awe of Wilson Rawls’ story telling ability. I thank the good Lord for allowing this classic fiction novel for young adult to be the book that brought to life my love of story telling and ultimately put me on the path to becoming a story teller myself. This is why Where The Red Fern Grows, is one of the books that made me.