Where the Red Fern Grows
by Wilson Rawls
If you wondered why Billy's dad doesn't seem a little more concerned that his son is keeping secrets, being party to ax-related deaths, and is out roaming the woods all night, here's your answer: the farm. See, Billy's dad actually has a job to do. While Billy's grandpa gets to be the fun adult, and his mom gets to be the soft comforting adult, Billy's dad has to actually feed the family.
(Okay, obviously mom is busy behind the scenes. But we don't get much insight into her job—probably because Billy sees it as women's work.)
Billy's dad is a first-generation farmer. The family got the land because of mama's Cherokee heritage. Papa isn't much of a hunter, so it seems like Billy and he don't have as much in common as Billy and his grandpa. But Papa works ridiculously hard to try save enough money to move the whole Colman clan to the city. Billy knows that the farm always "comes first with him" (14.64).
We know it's not an easy job because of passages like this one: "'I offered to get him a dog,' said Papa, 'but he doesn't want just any kind of dog. He wants hounds, and they cost money […] If I had that much money, I'd buy another mule. I sure do need one'" (2.24). The family is so poor that Papa doesn't even have the tools and animals he needs to farm properly, but he does it anyway.
Sound familiar? Working hard, saving money, being determined to fulfill a dream? Hmmm, maybe Billy and his dad aren't so different after all.
Like everyone else in Billy's family, Papa just wants what's best for the kids. He wants his kids to be able to have a "real" education: "I don't want you children to grow up without an education, not even knowing what a bottle of soda pop is, or ever seeing the inside of a school house. I don't think I could stand that" (6.65).
Yeah, recognizing a Coke bottle is definitely an important part of every kid's education.
Anyway, the point is that Papa has a lot invested in seeing his children—or Billy, at least—grow up to be mature, successful adults. In Billy's case, that takes the form of manhood. While Mama always tries to hold Billy back, Papa has the confidence to let him grow up. Some of the highlights of Billy's life are the moments when his father treats him like a man: when he returns from picking up the dogs, when he drinks coffee on the way to the competition, and when his father lets him help on the farm.
Even when Mama doesn't think Billy is quite ready, Papa is there to give Billy that little push into adulthood:
"Aw, he'll be all right," Papa said. "Besides, he's getting to be a good-sized man now."
"Man!" Mama exclaimed. "Why, he's still just a little boy." (8.19-20)
Mama has a point—Billy isn't quite all grown up, as we see when he wants to run back to her after watching Rubin impale himself on an ax. (Seriously, who wouldn't want to run back to mom?) But in this case, father really does know best. Billy may not start the book as a man, but he sure does end up as one. And a lot of that is thanks to a really cool dad.