Throwback Thursday is a weekly feature hosted by Tenacious Reader to highlight books from the past. It can honestly be anything as long as its not a book that is a current release. Maybe its a book that I read and reviewed and just want to highlight, maybe its a book I read before I started reviewing or maybe its a book that has a sequel coming out soon or maybe its a backlist book from my TBR that I just want to revisit and decide if I will make the time to read. Pretty much, anything goes.
Between second and seventh grade, I read Wilson Rawl’s Where The Red Fern Grows a couple of dozen times. It was either my first or second grade teacher who read the book aloud to my class, hooking me on this book as a kid and adding it to me “go to” rotation of books I’d return to time and again as comfort reading.
Now, if you know how this novel ends, it being “comfort reading” may feel a bit like an oxymoron. But, apart from the final chapter being a bit of a downer (because all books about dogs seem to end this way), the rest of the novel is a moving story of the bond between a boy and his dogs.
The boy in this case is Billy Coleman, growing up in the Ozark Mountains and wanting nothing more in his life than to have two hunting dogs of his own. Coming across a sportsman magazine left by some fisherman, Billy sees an ad selling dogs for $25 each. Billy spends the better part of two years earning extra money with traps his father gives him, selling vegetables and bait to fisherman, and doing various odd jobs to earn the fifty dollars needed to purchase his dogs.
The big day comes and Billy goes to his grandfather who owns the local store to order his dogs. Before you know, two hounds have arrived at the nearest large station and Billy has his dogs, named Old Dan and Little Anne after the names of two lovers carved into a tree by the campground used by the fisherman.
Visiting Where the Red Fern Grows again, I was surprised at how much of the early details of the book had slipped my memory. Listening to this as an audiobook while running, I was struck by how it takes the first disc and a half of the book before Billy gets his dogs. Rawls doesn’t hurry straight into Billy having dogs, but instead allows us to spend time with Billy being “dog crazy” and earning the money to purchase his dogs. Rawls also puts into place an underlying faith for Billy and his family, with a higher power called upon at multiple times to answer various prayers.
Once Billy gets his dogs, things became more memorable again. The story of Billy training them, hunting with them, and their rising fame unfolds with Rawls moving from one major incident in Billy’s life to the next. Whether’s an a bet that goes horribly wrong to the big hunting competition to the Billy cutting down the largest tree in the woods to get his dogs’ first raccoon, the big moments I remembered from my childhood were all here. As was the ending, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Listening to this story performed by Anthony Heald, I was struck by how solid a storyteller Rawls is. There’s a reason this story struck a chord with me and has done so with young readers since the novel’s initial publication. By telling the story from Billy’s first person perspective, we get to experience the highs and lows with him and emotionally invest in his dogs and family.
It’s why the ending hits you that much harder when it comes. I finished up listening on a hot, humid morning while running, thankful the sweat streaming down my face could hide the tears I was holding back as Old Dan (SPOILERS!) sacrifices himself to save young Billy from a mountain lion. Rawls makes the battle with the mountain lion vivid enough to sear itself into my young brain, but it’s a case of putting in just enough details so we know what’s happening and leaving the rest to our imagination. It’s probably why when I eventually saw the movie years ago, I was disappointed by it. The movie couldn’t get us inside Billy’s head at all the pivotal moments, especially this one.
And yet, even in the depths of tragedy, Rawls gives us hope and the title of this book. The novel ends on a bittersweet note. The story is narrated by an older Billy who sees a dog in the opening chapter that reminds him of his two dogs and begins the flashback narration.
My question going into this re-read of one of my favorite books from my younger days was would it hold up to my memories of it. The answer is, yes, it does. And while some the final scene still struck me in a similar place that it did back then, there were still a lot of things I felt like I was discovering again for the first time. Guess it’s a good thing I let twenty plus years go between the last time I read it growing up and now.
Listening to the audiobook and Anthony Heald’s performance may have added a bit to it. Heald, who is best-known in my world for his role in Silence of the Lambs vividly brings Billy and the rest of the cast of the book to life. Whether it’s Billy’s whoops to his dogs, the baying of Old Dan and Little Ann, or the unique voice of Grandpa, Heald performance livens up and makes an already vivid book that much more vivid and entertaining. I’m curious to see if what other books he’s performed and give them a listen as well.