Most of the literary nerds (or enthusiasts) that I’ve ever met can point to a book, or a few books, that first sparked their interest in literature. I’m a lifelong reader; I was tackling the Mr. and Mrs. Books, Bernstein Bears, and anything else I could get my hands on from the moment I could read. I took up novels in Grade 3 (Beverly Clearly, Gordan Korman, etc.) and continued to read avidly, but it was really two works that made me realize that literature could be something more than just a way to escape, or a distraction: a compendium of Greek Mythology, and the novel Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls.
My interest in Greek Mythology was simple; it had never occurred to me that literature could be used to explain things that occurred in the world; suddenly lightning could be hurled by Zeus when he was having a bad day, and Day and Night could be entities all their own, vying for dominance, or working in cooperation. It opened my eyes to a world where metaphor and allusion existed—and once you’ve swallowed that pill, there is no going back.
Arguably, my love for Where the Red Fern Grows was equally simple: it taught me that literature can reach into you and grab on, with characters crawling from the page, straight into your heart. The novel’s premise is simple: a country boy in (approximately 1920-1950) backwater Arkansas wants nothing more than a pair of hounds—specifically, Redbone Coonhounds. They’re expensive, and his family is poor, so he works himself to the bone to get them, and values them more than anything he’s ever had because of it. They become his family, and his life becomes centered on hunting with them.
The details and emotion of the novel paint a beautiful, and often heartrending picture. The story is peppered with wonderful scenes between the boy and his father and grandfather that show the same deep love and affection that Billy has for his dogs, making the ending that much more difficult. The final chapters are brilliantly foreshadowed, deeply emotional, and yet uplifting, highlighting the importance of love and connecting with someone or something(s) outside yourself.
I was probably 10 years old when I read Where the Red Fern Grows, and I cried like my heart had been broken when I finished the book. Even now, twenty some years later, I find myself returning to it every so often, having my heart broken all over again, and finding myself in tears. It reminds me, each and every time, about how powerful a story can be, and how wonderful. It’s the reason that, when other options may have made more economic or logical sense, I chose a degree in English, and never looked back.
I can’t wait for my sons to grow up. Already, they love their books (OK, the 7-month old mostly likes to chew on them, but he’ll get there) and it will be my great pleasure to lead them through some of the best literature has to offer at their age levels. There will be a special place in that collection for Where the Red Fern Grows, and I look forward to wiping the tears from their eyes and seeing the sorrow over the novel’s ending morph into wonder at the many worlds literature has in store for them.