Where the Red Fern Grows
by Wilson Rawls

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Doubleday: New York, 1961
212 pages

July 2001

A middling academic favorite

This is a famous, and over recent decades a best-selling novel that is often inflicted on captive juvenile audiences in Junior High Schools (many of these since relabeled as Middle Schools for doubtless middlin'-good reasons). The online reviews are almost universally positive, with readers claiming that the book is flawless or that it's the best animal story they've ever read.


The young narrator of Where the Red Fern Grows, Billy, develops an obsession with raccoon hunting and the coon hounds that are the principal tools of the hunt. Other coon-hunting tools are a lantern and axe, as we shall see. Billy works hard at trapping to earn money to buy an expensive pair of hound pups, and trains them and himself into an expert hunting team.

The locale is Cherokee land in the Ozark Mountains of Oklahoma (Billy's mother has reservation rights); the time is the early 1900s. Growing up on the family farm and the wild woods of this time and place, Billy never has been to school, and his first visit to a town happens during the story.

The San Diego County Office of Education is one of the academic commentators which believes the book's events take place during the Depression of the 1930s. Estimating backward as the narrator's opening has it, "more than a half century" from the book's publication in 1961, places us around 1910. Perhaps the teachers have in mind the Panic of 1907, but I doubt it. Another site gets the author's name wrong.

Raccoons, names, and sisters

Raccoon, by the way, is an Amerindian word, Virginia Algonquian, first recorded in 1608; probably from the word meaning scraper or scratcher, which describes the raccoon's habit of digging for food along streamsides. Coon is first recorded from 1742, although as a nickname I suppose it was in use earlier. Coon as "a rustic, frontier type" of fellow, from 1832; hence "In American politics, coon was a nickname for a Whig, first applied during the Presidential campaign of 1836." (See Mathews' Dictionary of Americanisms.)

Speaking further of labels — Billy has three sisters on the fringe of action throughout, but never named, usually just "my oldest sister" or "my youngest sister". His Papa and Mama and Grandpa have their family titles, but no one ever refers to any of the girls by name. It's true that the sisters aren't given much in the way of character, unless you count giggling. Several men with minor parts during a coon-hunting jamboree are named, although barely differentiated. The middling-aged sister gets even less attention than the others. The family cat is named Samie.

Framing the situation

Where the Red Fern Grows opens with a frame chapter, the mature narrator speaking in the present time as an introduction to events of his boyhood — "a story that went back more than a half century". Such a framing device often is a harbinger of a tear-jerker: an old man's memories of times long gone and people long dead — dogs too. The frame chapter is itself a sentimental micro-tale about a hound on a solo journey to some destination known only in its memory. So the reader should be braced for a tragic finale to the novel, or at least a melodramatic summation.

Sometimes a frame usefully sets off a difference in time or space, as Mark Twain's modern-day frame that opens A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. On the other hand, when Twain sets out to tell a story of youths in their own time, he begins the story right spang in the present of that time with its own mood and voice: Tom Sawyer; Huckleberry Finn.

Samie cat versus traps; hounds versus raccoons

As Billy is trapping to earn money to buy some hound pups, we see that Samie the cat, although the proud possessor of a name, is not a fellow who learns easily from experience. At different times Samie puts each of his four paws into Billy's raccoon traps. Presumably he gets some paws mangled more than once, for it is unlikely that he would work his way systematically around his limbs, thinking when he sees a trap, "Let's see, right rear paw, haven't tried that one in a trap yet. — Ouch!"

Fur-trappers' traps are designed to clamp down hard, inescapably hard, on animals mostly bigger and stronger than housecats. These traps are bone-breakers. Samie may be dumb, but his paws have nine lives.

Billy carefully trains his pair of young hounds: the male Old Dan is strong and brave; his smaller sister Little Ann is smart, and brave when necessary. When they really get to hunting, barefoot Billy and the dogs range the forest at night with axe and lantern. After the dogs scent, chase, and tree each raccoon, Billy uses the axe to chop down the tree. The dogs then kill the raccoon.

Raccoons can be tough customers, and like to fight in the river where they may set their claws into a dog's head, push the dog under water and drown it. The hounds are quite at risk in this enterprise.

Axeing trees for pelts

Where the Red Fern Grows makes it plain that a proper coon hunter chops down at least one tree per raccoon. Some points arising, all obvious even to a middling child:

1. This is a lot of work per raccoon.

2. What if the raccoon waits till the tree starts to topple, and then jumps to a nearby tree?

3. What value does the attractive striped fur retain if the raccoon is smashed into pulp by the falling tree?

4. What good is the torn and bloodied pelt anyway, after the tough and by-now-annoyed critter has been battled by dogs in a tooth-and-claw running fight among the dark trees, then in the dark waters of the river, along fallen trunks, and likely into the trees again?

The team hopes the raccoon is too stupid to climb another tree.

Billy hasn't a rifle, so the hounds have to finish the work of turning raccoon into fur for sale. The novel incidentally makes it clear, during a later week-long coon-hunting jamboree, that using a shotgun is permissible to tickle a treed coon out of his tree — which never ever kills it — so the dogs then can kill it on the ground. Although this brings up another fur-quality point:

5. What value does the pelt retain after it's riddled with bird-shot?

Axe-work there is a-plenty, though. A raccoon is treed in a giant sycamore, which is not only the champion tree of Billy's neck of the woods but a personal favorite of his, for which he's named the area. To keep faith with his watching dogs, Billy chops down his favorite tree, a muscle-wrenching chore which takes days.

I hadn't realized that raccoons were such a major factor in deforestation.

(For a much different view on hunting and trapping, and life-and-death adventures with interesting wild animals and beloved dogs of various kinds, read the excellent outdoor novels for young people by Jim Kjelgaard. His Snow Dog is reviewed at Troynovant; also see Gary L. Charter's Kjelgaard site.)

Who the winners, who the nameless?

Billy and his dogs travel to enter a multi-state coon-hunting contest. His "littlest sister" wants the gold trophy cup; she demands it, so Billy promises to win it for her. Now, if he'd said he'd win a trophy for the family, or (if he were older) for his wife, that might be reasonable. But for an unnamed sister? The cup is not hers — she's done nothing to contribute — if the hunting team of boy and dogs wins, it's the team's.

Naturally, the team wins the gold cup, duly presented to the littlest sister. The hound Little Ann also wins a silver cup for deportment, which is given to another sister; and a silver dollar to the third sister so she won't be left out.

Referring back to the mature narrator's opening frame, it seems as though Billy wound up with both the silver and gold trophy cups anyway. After all, why leave souvenirs of one's beloved dogs with sisters whose names aren't worth mentioning? Don't know about the silver dollar.

Red-fern angels

There are other intriguing moral lessons in Where the Red Fern Grows. For instance, during a challenge to find a particularly wily raccoon, a local young bully-boy and his bully-hound come to fatal ends while crossing our hero and his dogs. But nobody worries much about accidental deaths; the bully's own family is no more excited than they'd be to see a coon fall out of a tree. So that's all right.

With a straightforward boy-and-dogs story developing, I read on puzzled about the red fern of the title. This refers to an alleged Amerindian legend: an Indian boy and girl died in a blizzard; in the spring, a red fern had grown upon their graves. Perhaps a kind of vampire plant, that slurps blood out of the ground. The sacred red fern is immortal, as befits a grave-feeding plant which must be planted by an Indian angel — whatever one of those looks like. So when the reader realizes that Billy often refers to his coon hounds as boy and girl dogs, the reader is forewarned that by the end of the novel we'll see side-by-side canine graves with a red fern growing above them. And so it came to pass.

No fern for the bully-boy and his dog.

Where the hicks meet the Styx

No memorials for raccoons either, unless you count the gold cup awarded for quantity of kills. Nor for all those wasted trees, at least one per pelt. If in Billy's forest grew a tree belonging to the Queen of the Underworld, with a coon high on its single Golden Bough, Billy would fell it straightaway if doing so would let him send one more raccoon to meet the grim dog Cerberus across the river of death.

Upon discovering that the earlier 1974 movie adaptation of Where the Red Fern Grows features songs by Andy Williams — and recalling that his 1962 version of "Moon River" became a popular standard — it instantly was clear that the theme song for these night-runners should be "Coon River". (Standard apologies to the sparkling lyricist Johnny Mercer, composer Henry Mancini, and all the singers over the years.)

C-o-o-n  R-i-v-e-r — where the hicks meet the Styx,
My hounds are drowning in style,
Raccoon's getting away, a heartbreaker —
No — on the dark shore the hounds kill him.
Boy and dogs out to catch them all,
Chop each coon out of its tree;
Windrows of coon hides 'long Coon River
To earn piles o' dollars for the family,
Plant a red fern for dead hounds,
And me.

We cross over a shallower river

Perhaps it is for the novel's moral depth that in at least one chain super-bookstore, Where the Red Fern Grows is shelved in the Children's Section under "Intermediate Fiction".

(No reflection on the Raccoon River country of Iowa. For photos of real hounds at work, see Coon River Kennels.)

As the family is leaving the Ozarks forever — financed with coon hound fur-earnings and prize-winnings — the "little sister" realizes that their long-suffering cat Samie has been forgotten. But they are distracted by seeing the red fern in the distance, and move on. No words are wasted wondering how Samie will get along at the deserted farm. For Samie's part, the cat may be lying low, nursing his much-trapped paws and realizing that he's well rid of these people and all their coon-hunting ways.


© 2001 Robert Wilfred Franson

ALC & DHF contributed ideas.

Thanks to Gale Research
for its early reference reprint of this review.

Thanks to Jennifer Reeser (June 2020)
for the link to this background documentary of the movie
from Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People:
Where the Red Fern Grows, A Cherokee Legacy

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