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About the Book…

We’re going to be taking some time to post thoughts by a few KR student associates about what books they love and why. This is the second in the series, by Samantha Ley, a senior at Kenyon College from Burlington, CT. She is majoring in English and Spanish Literature.

I’ve always been a dog person. When I was younger, I skipped over the requisite horse phase almost completely. I read Black Beauty and Misty of Chincotegue at my mother’s urging, but dogs always truly had my heart, and they still do. That was the initial reason I was drawn to read Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls; it was about dogs; two of them, in fact. My own dog was great, and this was twice as many dogs as I had. What could be better?

It was this book that shook me, and confused me more than a little, when I started to cry at the death of Big Dan, and then more so at the death of Little Ann. The sad ending itself wasn’t completely unexpected. Sad stories existed, but I didn’t think that any story that had a dog, especially two dogs, could end so painfully as to draw tears from my eyes. As far as I knew, tears were reserved for the real life situations, and there was clearly no point in crying about something that was only contained within the covers of a book, something labeled as “fiction”.

In the span of a single book, no more than a couple hundred pages long, I’d grown so attached to two dogs, and to Billy’s affection for them, that it didn’t occur to me that they could disappear. I was horrified when they did. I didn’t understand how an author could let that happen to his story, or what would persuade him to let a perfectly good, adventurous narrative take a drastic turn for the worst. I doubted I would ever read it again; there was no point, since the ending would only cast a sinister shadow over the rest of the book. However, even more bizarre to me than the tears that the story elicited was the fact that I would reread this book, over and over, knowing how Big Dan would meet his end and Little Ann would follow soon after. It didn’t change the way that the story came together from start to finish, and it didn’t deaden the moments that had struck me the first time around. I looked forward to every moment that Billy scrimped and saved for his pups, and eagerly awaited the moment of discovery in which picks them up at the train station, despite the fact that I knew what their fate would be just a few chapters later.

There’s a lot to be said about Where the Red Fern Grows that couldn’t have possibly hit home when I was eight. I read (and reread, and reread again) Billy’s encounter with a tattered magazine advertisement for puppies, and the adventures that he envisioned as he saved coin by coin in an old can and waited for them to materialize. I wondered if I could do the same. I had no idea what the Great Depression was, and the Ozark Mountains meant nothing to me. I’m sure that now I could now interpret the book differently, examining the historical background of the narrative and the socioeconomic elements of Billy’s quest. There are obvious spiritual implications of Billy’s prayers for his dogs and the titular sacred red fern. The narration is framed by an older Billy, who remembers his story to us after meeting a coonhound later on in life, and if I were to consider this I’m sure I could come up with ways that this shades and influences his storytelling. I could probably write a paper on it. But I prefer not to, because that isn’t what the book meant to me.

Where the Red Fern Grows was a story about growing up before I knew what growing up meant .I read it without guidance and while I was perhaps too young to “get” it all, but I still learned what it was to truly love a piece of fiction. There was a point to reading besides reaching the end; in any good book, the end becomes the time to turn the pages back and start over at the beginning, no matter what the ending and how much it causes any dog lover’s heart to ache.