Where the Red Fern Grows is the first book I remember ever falling in love with; my second grade teacher read it to us in class, and being someone who really liked dogs, I was immediately enthralled. I remember one kid kept telling the rest of us, “the dogs are going to die, you know?” but none of us believed him–no one would ever kill off dogs in books (this was long before I read Old Yeller). And even though he was right, I still loved the book dearly; I loved Old Dan and Little Ann, and I desperately wanted to be Billy Coleman–I stole my brother’s raccoon-skin cap he’d gotten at Frontierland at Disneyland and from 2nd grade until middle school I wore it almost everyday: I would have worn it to school if my mother would have let me. I also wore overalls all the time and I named my Pound Puppies after Dan and Ann, and I swore that someday I would get some coonhounds of my own. I definitely had what Rawls had called “puppy love” in the book.
I don’t know the exact number of times I read this book, but it has to be up near fifty; my teachers had to force me to read other books, and when I was flunking math in fourth grade, my mother didn’t ground me from my friends or from the television–no, she grounded me from reading Where the Red Fern Grows. And it worked, for I busted my hump to get my math grade up and get my book back. Wilson Rawls was also the first author I ever wrote a fan letter to; unfortunately he’d succumb to cancer about five years earlier, but his wife Sophie sent me a nice letter that I kept for years and years, until it got lost as some point. I read the cover off of at least two copies, and before I had my own copy, I kept my school library’s copy almost constantly checked (I adored the cover of their copy, which isn’t the one shown here–I was unable to find a picture of the actual cover they had–and often thought of reporting it missing just so I’d have it forever, but my mother didn’t raise thieves for children….). It didn’t matter that I bawled my eyes out over and over when I read that book; nothing has quite held my heart the way this book had, and continues to do so today.
I tried reading it to my daughter, but to my sadness, she had very little interest, and when we were halfway through and she heard from someone about what happens at the ending, she didn’t want me to finish. It was just too emotionally brutal for her and she wanted nothing to do with it. Years later I tried again with my son and this time we made it all the way through, and when I closed the book for the last time, he just kind of hid his head in his pillow and cried, and nothing I said comforted him. I figured he’d hated it too, but to my surprise, when we came across a $5 copy of the 1974 movie version, he begged me to buy it and we both sat down and watched it, and he cried again (it takes a lot to make me cry anymore). We haven’t watched it since then, but I was glad to have least been able to share my love of this story with at least one of my kids.
And back in day, I’d always talked about how someday I was going to get myself two coonhounds, just like Billy had, and wouldn’t you know, that is one childhood dream that came true. I wasn’t looking for a hound, but when I saw Lily’s adorable face on the Humane Society of Boulder Valley’s website, I fell in love immediately and made sure I was at the shelter first thing the next morning. I really considered naming her Little Ann, but in the end we settled on Lily, which suits her just fine. She’s not a Red Bone, like the dogs in the book–she’s a Treeing Walker–but she’s every bit as sweet and smart, and I really can’t believe I waited until my 30′s to finally get a coonhound of my own.