Where the Red Fern Grows
by Wilson Rawls
Where It All Goes Down
Northeastern Oklahoma in a valley in the Ozarks
The story starts in present day—meaning roughly the 1960s—but most of it takes place about a half-century earlier. We aren't given an exact date by Rawls, but get out your calculators and you'll see that the 1920s would be a safe guess, since there's talk of bootlegging and raccoon coats.
But other than some old-fashioned words about buggies, historical trends don't intrude too much on Billy's childhood. He's so isolated that he could be living in about any time between the 1850s and the 1950s, and his story probably wouldn't look too different. What matters is the woods. The forest of Billy's childhood is so important that it's practically a character in its own right.
A Country Boy in Not So Big City
What kid wouldn't enjoy running around in the woods with no responsibilities besides looking after a pair of really impressive dogs? Sounds a lot like paradise to us, and Billy feels the same way too. He never seems bummed out about how poor his family is, or that he has no shoes, or that he's never tasted a soft drink—as long as he's in the woods.
Billy believes he lives in "the finest hunting country in the world" (2.10). In recounting his story, Billy will often pause and discuss the beauty of the woods around him: the "aromatic scent of wild flowers" (2.13), "the clear blue waters of the Illinois river" (2.14), and the "tall sycamores" (2.14), which all combined to create "the most beautiful place in the whole wide world" (2.15).
To be fair, Billy doesn't have a lot to compare this scenery to—but it sure sounds beautiful, and he sure loves it.
So if he's happy when he's in the woods how does he feel about town?
You guessed it. Not too great. The one time we see Billy unsure of himself is when he goes into town to pick up his dogs. This change of setting takes Billy out of his comfort zone. Some local boys tease him, which gets under his skin in a way that even Rubin and Rainie can't.
In fact Billy gets so upset that he gets into a fight with the town boys, "As I turned to face the mob, I doubled up my fist, and took a Jack Dempsey stance" (5.51). This is seriously out of character for Billy. Once he is removed from his safe haven of the woods, he gets all mixed up. As he tells his family once he's home, the town is so "crowded" that he can't even "get a breath of fresh air"; it was "boiling with people," and "the wagon yard was full of wagons and teams" (6).
No wonder he runs back to the woods as soon as he can.
Billy may feel at peace in the woods, but let's not forget it's not exactly the safest place in the world. His mom is rightly concerned about Billy being in the woods by himself at night. He is often confronted with life and death situations, like near-drownings, dangerous animals, and heavy snowstorms.
Sure, the woods provide raccoons—and money—for Billy's family. But they also take away, in the form of a giant, bad-tempered mountain lion.