Where the Red Fern Grows
by Wilson Rawls
Billy is our protagonist, the main character, the head honcho, the big cheese. Oh, and he's also our narrator. This whole story begins as a memory that Billy has after taking care of a wounded hound dog.
This means that the first thing we learn about Billy is that he's a kind, caring person. He can't stand to see a dog hurt. (Although, come on, that is setting the bar kind of low.)
This, and his impressive ability to comfort and help the dog, is the only background we get about Billy before jumping into the flashback. So, we're already primed to sympathize with the guy—and to expect a lot of talk about dogs.
Okay, so Billy loves dogs. He pretty much spends all of chapter 2 telling us how awesome hound dogs are and how much he wants one. "I was ten years old when I became infected with this terrible disease," he says: "I'm sure no boy in the world had it worse than I did" (2.2). Ooh, sounds catching.
Anyway, after a lot of grit and hard work, Billy finally gets his dogs. So now he doesn't have to tell us how much he wants them; instead, he spends the rest of the book telling us how much he loves them. Over and over again. To be honest, the three of them are so cute together that we don't mind. They're like a lovable trio of coon-hunting awesomeness.
The thing is, Billy's relationships with his dogs help us understand the type of person Billy is. We already know he's kind from the opening. From the way he works so hard to buy them, we know that he's persistent, diligent, and hard-working. (Not to mention secretive.) And then once he has them, he's patient and caring. He understands their faults—Old Dan's a little dumb; Little Ann's a little…little—and brings out the best in them, just like they bring out the best in him. (Managers, pay attention: this is how to treat your employees.)
As they start to de-raccoon the woods surrounding his house, Billy stays gracious and full of gratitude for his dogs. He is always thankful that he has them, and never ever ever takes them for granted: "In every way a young boy could, I said 'thanks.' My second prayer wasn't said with just words. All of my heart and soul was in it" (11.78).
Of course, all this dog-craziness has a downside. While Billy spends so much time devoted to his dogs, he forgets to do things like telling his parents when he's heading to the town thirty miles away, or sleeping on the side of the road. Plus, there's that whole not realizing his mom was pregnant thing: "I had been so busy with my coon hunting I hadn't noticed anything unusual. Mama's tummy was all swelled up. She was going to have a baby. I felt guilty for not having noticed" (14.94). Well, Billy, you probably should feel guilty about that one.
Of course, he does try to make up for it by making the house as comfortable as possible. And the money he makes does help them all move into town, where hopefully they'll all be better off. That's the thing—single-minded dedication to anything means that you have to let other parts of your life go. We get the feeling that "balance" is one of the lessons Billy learns by the end of the book.
After all, he does have a strong bond with his family. His success is really a family affair. When Billy hits a wall or needs help, he goes to his family.
It's his grandpa who helps him get his first raccoon: "In desperation I went to my grandpa" (7.3), he remembers. Later, his whole family sees him off on his first hunting trip, showing their support for Billy's dreams: "The whole family followed me out on the porch" (8.29). Everyone sees him off when he goes to the hunting competition, and his father and grandfather even follow him through a snowstorm in pursuit of the final coon they need to win.
The family helps Billy out, because Billy would absolutely help them out. He shares his candy with his sisters, even though he hasn't tasted candy in years. He promises his littlest sister the gold cup, if he wins the hunting competition. And he even turns every cent of his money over to his father, which shows us he understands the family's financial situation and wants to help.
We mean, seriously. What twelve-year-old boys do you know who would do all that?
Grab the Tissues
Yeah, Billy cries a lot. Like, a lot a lot. Something makes Billy cry in almost every chapter. Guess we know his triggers: hard work and bleeding feet are nothing, but any sign of emotional distress—even the good kind, like being excited—and he breaks down.
Well, first, all this crying tells us he's got a good heart. Like the way he saved the dogs, the crying is a clue to let us know that Billy is a decent, sensitive, caring person, even if he spends most of his time encouraging his dogs to slaughter innocent creatures. (Well, maybe not so innocent.)
And second, all this crying is a stark contrast to his actions while hunting out in the woods. Billy performs really impressive feats of manliness: winning the hunting competition, chopping down a huge stinkin' tree, saving Little Ann from drowning, plus being the best coon hunter in the county.
But deep down, Billy is still just a twelve-year old boy. Billy admits this after seeing Rubin die: "I suppose it's natural at a time like that for a boy to think of his mother. I thought of mine. I wanted to get home" (13.129). Like wanting to go home to his mother, crying is a sign that Billy is still just as much a boy as a man. Even if his dad starts letting him drink coffee.Billy Colman's Timeline