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The scene: a motel room near Disney Land
The time: Spring Break in the late 1970s
As we fade into our scene, we find Amy lying on the floor finishing Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. Her teacher had started it before spring break, but Amy couldn’t wait until after the break to find out what happened to Billy and his dogs Old Dan and Little Ann.
And then she found out.
The sobbing wouldn’t stop. She hadn’t seen the ending coming. Even after spring break when Mrs. Conley finished the book, the tears would flow again. The love. The sacrifice. The compelling story. The good writing.
Where The Red Fern Grows is the story that stays with Amy. It’s where she knew, deep in her soul, the potential power of a book.
I love this series! (Truth be told I wanted to end that sentence with about 15 exclamation points, but that might leave you wondering if I am still in 4th grade and if paisley is about to make a comeback.)
I calmly say it again. I love this series. I love adding to my potential reading list. I love reading what you’ve read and if you like what I liked, feeling a tiny bit smug. “See, I’m in the know and we’re right.” I love the way reading expands my horizons, adds to my toolbox, and calls me forth to be in touch with suffering.
One thing I noticed about this series (and last year’s) is that it is non-fiction heavy. If you knew me, you’d laugh in my face. Now, as an adult, I read 90% non-fiction. So as I read through the books planned for this series, I found myself nodding, yes, yes, yes. Those are great books! I’ve gotten some to add to my list and I bet you will too.
But, as I read over the list, I saw Young Amy sobbing and knowing her life would be forever marked by a boy and his dogs. Why? Because she was moved and haunted in the best, most holy sense. So, today, I want to share about the ways this book has played out in my life through the years.
This book gave us a common vocabulary and story to talk about important things in life. It gave us a shared experience. It bonded us.
In my twenties I taught English in China. My students were Chinese English teachers who were participating in a two-year training program. Every Tuesday night my teammate and I worked in our small English library, checking out books, magazines, and cassette tapes. You can imagine I was in my element suggesting books for the students to read. But the catch is that the Chinese are drawn to the “classics” and “famous” literature. After trying to read something like A Tale of Two Cities in their second language and getting bogged down, they’d be open to my suggestions. Haha!
I’m sure you can guess what became one of the most requested books in the library. Where The Red Fern Grows was the gateway drug to other good, but not famous books and reading flourished on our campus. Go Billy, Old Dan, and Little Ann and the ways you inspire a love of story beyond fame.
The text message said, “You were wrong. I didn’t cry.”
The reply text asked, “Check if you still have a pulse.”
A smug niece said she read the whole book without one tear. This was early in the summer. Later that summer, as I read Where The Red Fern Grows out loud to her sisters, even though #1 had read it and only listened at times, she’d chime in, “Oh, I missed that part.” (It turns out, I think she skims more than she realizes.) The girls would beg for more to be read to them.
When it came time to finish the book, even #1 joined us in the living room, lying on the couch. As the story went on, she turned away from us, you can guess why. My brother-in-law plopped in a chair – he did not know we were so near the end or that we would all be sobbing and he’d entered into an emotional time where it would be tacky to stand up and leave. He’s a good man.
Where The Red Fern Grows gave us a common vocabulary and story to talk about important things in life. It gave us a shared experience. It bonded us.
Though the draw to non-fiction is strong, I hope I never forget the power and importance of story. Wilson Rawls, I will be forever grateful to you. Though it is improbable, I hope to meet Billy, Old Dan, and Little Ann in heaven and thank them too.
What books have moved you? What stories were significant in your childhood?
Interested in reading Where the Red Fern Grows? Check it out here!
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Image Credit: Library Archives, Creative Commons