I first read "Where the Red Fern Grows" 36 years ago. It’s a coming of age novel about a young pioneer boy of strong character. I remember the night well. I was telling my then 13-year-old son good night when he told me about the great book he was reading for school, and then mentioned the book report was due the next day. I asked, “Have you finished reading the book?” He shook his head with a worried expression. “Well, how far are you?” He showed me—page 69. One-hundred and eighty pages to go, and it was already 9 o’clock on a school night.
I remember sighing. It had been a long day – in those days, all my days were long as a single working mom. I grabbed some extra pillows from my bedroom and told him to slide over because we had a book to finish. Reading was hard for my boy back then, so I read out loud to him. We discussed some of the exciting scenes as we read. But mostly he just wanted to know what was going to happen next. It’s a page turner! By 2:45 a.m. we had finished the book. It didn’t take long to write the report. I was his secretary and wrote his comments as he excitedly told me what he liked most about the book, which was nearly everything! He copied the report over the next morning after only three hours of sleep.
I finished reading this novel again last week. This time I loved it almost as much as my son did back then. The author tells the story through the eyes of Billy, a 13-year-old boy who is suffering from a serious case of “dog-wanting disease.” He tries to be grown up and yet openly cries when things get too hard. He’s ambivalent about his mother’s kisses as she fusses and worries over him. His father is a farmer and his grandfather owns the only general store in the village.
Billy learns wilderness survival and hunting skills as a child and grows to be a determined and strong-willed adolescent who clearly knows the difference between right and wrong.
Nothing is handed to Billy. He works hard as a trapper for two years before he has enough money to buy a pair of coon dogs. The part where he trains his dogs, Big Dan and Little Ann, is my favorite. The tenderness, empathy and love between him and his dogs, and the dogs for each other, is almost magical.
Another part I love is when his mother makes him a coon skin hat from his first coon hide, even though she worries about him every minute he is out coon hunting. And when he finds the red fern – it’s truly a beautiful story. I think everyone should read this book because it is simple and yet so deep. My son grew up to be a fine and resilient man, maybe a bit like Billy. There are many lessons to learn from this novel. If you read it years ago, you’ll be surprised how much more it will mean to you, re-reading it as an adult.
Cheryl Bazzoui is an author who lives in Bradford. She writes under the pen name Ann McCauley.