This book may be set in the country, but it's no lighthearted romp through the backwoods. The whole time, in fact, the narrator is staring into a fire and remembering the good ol' days. You can't get more contemplative than a middle-aged man staring into a fire. Just imagine him stroking his beard, muttering about "back in the day."
Well, maybe not quite. But we do get some pretty nostalgic recollections about his childhood. Check out this passage, right at the end of the book:
I have never been back to the Ozarks. All I have left are my dreams and memories, but if God is willing, some day I'd like to go back—back to those beautiful hills. I'd like to walk again on trails I walked in my boyhood days.
Once again I'd like to face a mountain breeze and smell the wonderful scent of the redbuds, the papaws, and the dogwoods. With my hands I'd like to caress the cool white bark of a sycamore. (8.43)
This vivid little ending captures the book's tone perfectly. It's nostalgic, because he literally says "I'd like to go back." That's nostalgia for you: the sentimental desire to return to an idealized past.
It's wistful, because you never feel like he's actually going to do it. "All I have left are my dreams and memories," he says, as if he's accepted that he's never going back there.
And it's contemplative, because this ending closes an entire story in which Billy contemplates the deeper significance of a certain time of his life: the chain of events that led him from being a dog-sick, barefoot country boy to a city-living office worker.
So. No lighthearted romping in sight.
Sure, Billy ages 2 years over the novel, but most of that takes place in the first 3 chapters. His real coming of age starts happening once he's got those cute little puppies in his hot little hands—er, gunnysack.
Billy goes from being a 10-year-old boy obsessed with hounds to being 12 years old and having experienced sacrifice and death. You don't go through that sort of emotional roller coaster without growing up a bit in the process. This emotional maturity is what constitutes a coming-of-age story. By the end, Billy is ready to move forward into adulthood. We mean this both figuratively and literally, as his family is moving.
The narrator really drives it home for us when Papa tells Billy that the family was going to leave Billy behind and let him stay with Grandpa so he wouldn't have to leave his dogs. But that would have left Billy in a state of idyllic childhood, when in fact it's time for him to experience loss and suffering—and grow up.
Yeah. That's the thing about growing up: it's not all driver's licenses and midnight curfews. Sometimes it's watching your beloved dogs die and leaving behind your childhood home. Kind of a bummer, right?
There's nary a pirate nor errant knight to be found in this book. So what's so adventurous about it?
Well, we do get a whole lot of life and death situations. A boy running around in the woods with his dogs is bound to have a few adventures. And if danger, heroism, bloody battles, and sacrifice don't qualify a book as an adventure story, then we might as well hang up our sword right now.
Though we at Shmoop firmly believe Young Adult literature doesn't have to be confined to just young adults, this book was clearly written with that audience in mind. We've got a young narrator and protagonist telling his story. He is constantly giving us his opinions, thoughts, and perspectives. He's totally relatable to the young adult crowd. And even though Billy is a very mature 12-year-old, this book is still firmly in the Young Adult genre.
For those of you keeping track, the phrase "red fern" doesn't appear until the seventh paragraph of the last chapter. And it only comes up 12 times. Twelve times in over 200 pages! Hm. It's almost as though what Billy learned from the dogs is more important than the dogs themselves.
Let's start with looking at what, exactly, the red fern is.
According to the book, there's a legend that only an angel can plant a red fern. The legend is a bit unpleasant, since it's about two Native American children who got lost and froze to death. (See, we said it was unpleasant.)
When the kids are found in the spring, a red fern is growing between their bodies. This makes the red fern sacred. In this one little legend, we've got a connection to the spiritual and sacred, an allusion to religion, and an implication that the dogs really were sent by God (see themes for more about Religion). That's quite a wallop to pack into one little legend.
Okay, so let's say we're not into all that kooky supernatural stuff. If we're just talking about a literal place where a red fern is growing, then we're still talking where Old Dan and Little Ann are buried—the place of Billy's childhood dreams and ambitions; his first true love; the proof of his character; and the ultimate sacrifice the little dogs made so that he and his family could better themselves.
Hey, where'd those tissues go?
So everything is wrapped up, the fat lady is about to sing, and the Colmans are on their way to town. We get a neat little transition from country to city and, for Billy, boyhood to manhood. The red fern gives us, through Billy, closure of the story of Old Dan and Little Ann. Some final reflecting thoughts from old man Billy and we're good to go.
Everybody's happy, right? Not so fast. Why has Billy never been back to see his old home and visit his dogs' graves?
It's obviously not that he doesn't have enough money, because, really? We're talking about Billy, the kid who saved for two years to buy his coonhounds. What's weird is that the last few paragraphs are full of things that Billy would like to do: "I'd like to walk again on trails," "I'd like to see the old home place," "I'd like to walk up the hillside" (20.41-44).
So, why is it that a kid who was once able to do anything he set his mind to, now can't even make a simple trip to the country? Well, maybe this is a hint: "part of my life is buried there, too" (20.45).
Maybe it has nothing to do with money or time. Maybe he just knows that he can't go back, because that would mean returning to his childhood. He couldn't go back to the old farm any more than he could go back to being an eager, determined boy again.
Sad? Yeah. But—and this is word we've been using a lot—maybe it's more bittersweet.
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.
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.
This book is pretty straightforward, so you shouldn't have any trouble. Take this totally random sentence:
As I ate, Papa sat down at the table and started talking man-talk to me. (6.32)
Got it? Of course you do. There are only four words of more than one syllable, and one of them is "Papa." The only thing to keep an eye out for is some seriously outdated language. The book was written in the late 1950s or early 1960s, and takes place 50 years before that, so the boy throws around words like "gunnysacks" and "buggies." (Oh, and city slickers should watch out for some hunting terminology—but, you know what? We think you're going to be fine.)
Well, howdy there! Time to get down to brass tacks and suss out this here writin' style.
Our friend Billy is a country boy who is plainspoken and straight to the point. To further highlight Billy's youth and innocence, Billy often speaks in simple, short sentences:
A year passed. I was twelve. I was over the halfway mark. I had twenty-seven dollars and forty-six cents. My spirits soared. I worked harder. Another year crawled by, and then the great day came. (3.25-26)
Pretty plain, right? But don't be fooled into thinking he can't spin a good metaphor or simile when the moment calls, even if the imagery he uses is still pretty country: "By the time I had reached the river, every nerve in my body was drawn up as tight as a fiddle string" (8.42).
And that's all we have to say about that.
Look, Billy loves dogs. Loves them. Seriously, this kid gets sick because he wants a dog so much. So, obviously they're important. It's hard to say if the kid Billy can see past their cute little paws and soft ears, but the adult Billy—the one writing this story—sees them as symbolizing the best parts of the human spirit: loyalty, courage, and determination.
Buddie is the first dog we meet in a story about the relationship between man and dog, so he's got to be important, right? Sure he is. This is the dog that is the catalyst for the whole story we are about to hear.
What's really weird is how much Billy seems to know about this dog:
To him it made no difference how long the road, or how rough or rocky. His old red feet would keep jogging along mile after mile. There would be no crying or giving up. […] Through the rains, the snows, or the desert heat, he would jog along, never looking back. (1.31)
Billy is clearly projecting his experience with Old Dan and Little Ann onto this Dog. If you think about it, there are actually several similarities:
From this little list, we can pick up a few things: (1) dogs help Billy be the best person he can be—kind, caring, and brave; (2) they're closely connected with poverty and hard work and doing things the DIY way; and (3) they represent something about the nature of childhood.
That's a lot of meaning to pile on the back of one scrappy species.
Even for dogs, Old Dan and Little Ann are something else. Their weird, mystical connection lets them do things that no ordinary hounds should be able to—track the ghost coon; help kill a mountain lion; stay out all night in a snowstorm to tree a raccoon. So what makes them so special?
Billy's parents believe that the dogs answer the prayers of both Billy and the family by providing the money they need. Sort of like a two-for-one special: Billy gets his dogs, and the family gets the money it needs.
They tell Billy that God only answers prayers if you say them with all your heart. This certainly makes the dogs seem mystical in nature, like angels or spirits. And Billy learns to have faith in God through having faith in his dogs. Even in almost hopeless situations, Billy refuses to give up his belief in his dogs. At the very end, when he sees the red fern, he believes in them again—only this time, belief in them means belief in God.
Nothing says winner like a giant gold trophy, so it's no wonder that Billy's hung onto it all these years. But—stay with us, here—we're thinking there might be something at work beside just a reminder of the glory days.
While Buddie might have started Billy on his journey down memory lane, it's the trophy cups that specifically remind him of Old Dan and Little Ann. These cups represent everything that Billy and his dogs were able to accomplish. Sure, they're gold and silver—classic symbols of wealth. But these cups symbolize a different kind of wealth.
Check out the way he describes the cups:
One was large with long, upright handles that stood out like wings on a morning dove. The highly polished surface gleamed and glistened with a golden sheen. The other was smaller and made of silver. It was neat and trim, and sparkled like a white star in the heavens. (1.39)
Hm. One is big and showy; the other is small and smart-looking. Does that sound like a familiar duo of miraculous dogs to you? Because it sure sounds a lot like Old Dan and Little Ann to us. So the cups don't just represent Billy's hard work; they're actually symbols for the dogs themselves. They're the only tangible reminders of the dogs that he has, and so they're much more valuable than the precious metals they're made of.
But there's more. Check out the way Billy uses the words "dove" and "heavens" to describe the cups, almost as though they take on a religious significance. Doves are traditionally symbols of peace and salvation, so Billy's description here elevates the trophy cups to something more along the lines of communion cups.
Communion cups hold the wine in the Christian celebration of communion, so you could say that, according to the novel, these cups symbolize God's grace and presence in Billy's life. Think about it: the dogs bring peace to Billy, save his life, and provide financial salvation for his family. No wonder they're special.
In Billy's recollections, an old can stands out as strongly as his beloved dogs: "Memories of my boyhood days, an old K. C. Baking Powder can and two little red hounds" (1.34). Great. But what's the big deal about a rusty old can?
Well, this isn't any old rusty can. Billy takes something that looked like trash and "scrubs it with sand till it was bright and new looking" (3.14). Even in these small ways, Billy's resourcefulness comes through. This newly shiny can symbolizes Billy's repeated ability to work with the simple materials he has and make something beautiful out of them.
Think about Little Ann at the hunting competition. Rather than use fancy oils, Billy uses what he has: butter and his grandpa's comb. What the can shows us is that once Billy has realized his poverty, he begins to overcome it. Nothing—especially not a little rust—is going to stand in the way of his dreams.
We've got a double whammy here: trees themselves are an important symbol of nature, but there's one special tree: the giant that Billy has to chop down on the first night he goes out hunting.
Most people see a giant, old tree, and they want to admire it, maybe take a goofy picture of themselves trying to get their arms around it. Not Billy. Billy wants to cut it down.
To be fair, the giant tree is Billy's test of character. It symbolizes (again) his dedication and persistence. Billy must conquer this tree to prove his loyalty to his dogs—not to mention, his own abilities to himself. And this is one giant tree. So, he almost gives up.
"Come on," I said to my dogs. "There's nothing I can do […] I can't climb it. Why it's sixty feet up to the first limb and it would take me a month to cut it down." (8.92-94)
But as we soon see, Billy will do anything for his dogs. So he grits his teeth, grabs his ax and takes on this test of faith, blisters and all.
Not only is this a physical test, but an emotional one as well. Billy must say goodbye to his life as he knew it before his dogs: "I knew I would miss the giant of the bottoms, for it had played a wonderful part in my life" (9.135). The tree represents a piece of his childhood that he must cut away in order to grow and become an adult. With each adventure and danger that he faces with his dogs, Billy moves farther away from childhood. The chopping down of the tree is his first step on that path to adulthood.
We just hope that the family at least uses it for firewood, or something.
But it's not all giants of the bottoms. The woods are full of trees, particularly sycamores: "All around me tall sycamores gleamed like white streamers in the moonlight" (8.43). More than any other tree in the wood, sycamores represent something divine with their whiteness, purity, and innocence. Whenever Billy gets scared he tends to hide behind the sycamore tree, rather that any other tree, and even uses them as shelter to rest and talk with his dogs—and with God:
I walked back to the sycamore tree. Once again I said a prayer, but this time the words were different. I didn't ask for a miracle. 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)
Need more proof? When Billy is searching for names for his pups. He finds the answer in…wait for it…a sycamore tree.
There carved in the white bark of a sycamore tree was a large heart. In the center of the heart were two names, "Dan" and "Ann." […] I stared unbelieving—for there were my names. They were perfect. (6.8)
Billy believes God has him these names the same way he answered his prayers for the pups. God's paper? The bark of the sycamore tree.
Since this is a story about Billy Colman's experiences with a pair of hunting dogs, you'd think it'd be super handy to have Billy as the narrator, right?
Well it is, but don't get too excited. Billy tells us from the beginning that, "Piece by piece the story unfolded" (1.41). It's as if he is just remembering this story, and he is telling it to us as he remembers.
This raises the question: how well can he actually remember what happened 50 years ago? And doesn't it seem like may be exaggerating, or at least misremembering? Just a teeny bit?
Shmoopers, meet your good ol' unreliable narrator. Now, this doesn't mean Billy is necessarily lying, but it does make us wonder how accurate his recollection is. Think about the miracle of the big tree. Billy swears that was the only tree moving in the entire forest:
I looked over to my right at a big black gum tree. Not one limb was moving. […]. Over on my left stood a large hackberry. I looked up to its top. It was as still as a fence post. (9.122-123)
Sure, this could have happened exactly as Billy says it did, but how many times have you told a story and jazzed up the details a bit? Or couldn't remember the exact order of events? Look, all we're saying is—beware of 50-year-old memories. Sometimes we can't even remember what we ate for dinner last night.
Billy wants a pair of hunting dogs more than anything, but his family is too poor to buy them for him. So, he earns the money himself. Slowly. Through two years of berry-picking and rodent-trapping. The biggest thing to remember from the exposition is that for Billy, dogs = happiness.
Billy spends all his time hunting with his dogs in the woods, gleefully flinging himself into dangerous situations like near-drownings, freezing water, and skirmishes with armed hoodlums. The team overcomes one obstacle after another, even winning a gold cup and $300 at a hunting competition. They're unstoppable!
Talk about a climax: while out hunting, Billy and his dogs are attacked by a mountain lion. The dogs fight off the lion and save Billy's life, but they're wounded in the process. Seriously wounded—like, entrails dragging on the ground, wounded. It's pretty brutal.
Old Dan dies (obviously, because his insides were on his outside), and Little Ann dies from a broken heart. Needless to say, Billy is majorly, majorly depressed. His parents try to comfort him by telling him that all the money he made hunting is going to pay for them all to move to town and get educated. Shockingly, this doesn't cheer Billy up.
On the day the family is about to move, Billy visits the graves of his dogs and sees a sacred red fern growing between them. Seeing the fern gives Billy the peace he has been missing since his dogs died, and he's now ready to grow up—we mean, move to town. Happy ending? Well, not according to Hollywood. Let's call it bittersweet.