Study Guide

Where the Red Fern Grows Themes

  • Perseverance

    Blackberry-picking. Crawfish-catching. Coon-treeing. Mountain lion slaying. Is there anything this kid can't (or won't) do? In Where the Red Fern Grows, Billy comes across every possible roadblock on the path to getting his dogs. And he meets every one of them head on—including the really, really big roadblock of losing them tragically. But it's a fine line between perseverance and stubbornness, and Billy often finds himself with one foot on each side. Could you even argue that his stubbornness led to the final fight with the lion? Maybe. But then, if there's anyone more stubborn than Billy, it's Old Dan.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. In what ways is Billy's perseverance similar to Old Dan's? How are they different?
    2. Why doesn't Billy give up when he is met with so many challenges in trying to get and train his dogs? What keeps him going? 
    3. Perseverance is usually looked at as a positive trait. Are there moments in the book where it is portrayed negatively?

    Chew on This

    Billy's youth helps him persevere. An older boy would have been quicker to give up, because he would have been more realistic about the obstacles.

    Where the Red Fern Grows suggests that perseverance is a family trait. Everyone from Billy's mom to his grandpa models persistence.

  • Coming of Age

    You want a quick way to gain some maturity? Get yourself a pet. And then wait for it to die. Yeah, nothing makes you grow up like some responsibility and tragedy. In Where the Red Fern Grows, Billy does a whole lot of growing up once he gets his dogs. He trains them, cares for them, and certainly learns from them. Eventually he even uses them to bring in money for the family, which gives him more responsibility as a family breadwinner. This isn't just a book about two dogs and a boy; it's about two dogs turning a boy into a man.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. What do you think is the most important experience in helping Billy grow up?
    2. Under what circumstances could a boy Billy's age be considered a "man"? 
    3. In what ways is Billy still a boy at the end of the novel? How has he changed from the beginning of the story?

    Chew on This

    In order for Billy to mature fully, he must experience the loss of his hounds.

    Billy's transformation to adulthood doesn't begin until he starts hunting. Until then he is still immature.

  • Loyalty

    Well, you'd expect a species that earned the nickname "man's best friend" too be loyal. And boy, are these two little hounds loyal to Billy. Old Dan's loyalty might only be matched by his stubbornness. The thing is, you might as well call this kid "dog's best friend" cause he is one loyal owner. He never leaves his dogs behind, he chops down the biggest tree in the woods for them, and he even swears to lay down his life for them. The sad thing is, they're the ones who end up laying down their lives for him. In Where the Red Fern Grows, loyalty is serious—and deadly—business.

    Questions About Loyalty

    1. Where do you think Billy's sense of loyalty comes from? Family? Faith? His dogs?
    2. What does loyalty mean to Billy? How would he define it? 
    3. It is clear that Billy is loyal to his dogs. In what ways does he show his loyalty to his family?

    Chew on This

    Billy's loyalty to his dogs has nothing to do with Old Dan or Little Ann specifically. It comes from how hard he had to work to get them.

    Because Billy's loyalty to his dogs conflicts with his loyalty to his family, it puts Billy in dangerous, sometimes life-threatening positions.

  • Family

    Billy doesn't get out much. His life pretty much revolves around his farm and his grandpa's shop. Naturally, his family has a huge impact on who he is—so it's sure lucky that he's got such a great family. Where the Red Fern Grows is as much about the impact of family as it is about the triumph of the individual. To prove it, Rawls contrasts the Colmans with the Pritchards. Their family is full of bullies and meanies, so, obviously, they're some serious troublemakers. The conflict between Billy and the Pritchard boys is as much a conflict between families as it is between individual adolescents.

    Questions About Family

    1. Billy doesn't use names when talking about members of his family. What effect does this have on his portrayal? Does it make him seem more or less loving toward them, and why?
    2. Is Billy more like his mother or father? Does the young Billy seem to have a different idea about this than that narrator Billy? 
    3. Which member of Billy's family helps him the most in the novel? Does he seem closer to one member than to another?

    Chew on This

    If Billy had known that giving his dad his hunting money would mean they had to leave the mountains, he would not have done it.

    Without the help of his family, Billy would never have been able to succeed as a hunter.

  • Poverty

    Okay, so we're not exactly talking poverty on a Charles Dickens level, but this family sure doesn't have much. What's weird is that, in Where the Red Fern Grows, poverty ends up seeming like a blessing. Poverty lets Billy grow up in an idyllic pastoral forest; poverty gives Billy the opportunity to learn all about hard work while figuring out how to get his dogs. Lucky him!

    Questions About Poverty

    1. Is it an overstatement to say the Colman family is poor? If so, how would you characterize their financial situation?
    2. Aside from not having the money to initially buy the dogs, does being poor ever hold Billy back?
    3. Does Billy's poverty make him an underdog (no pun intended)?
    4. How are people with money portrayed in the novel?

    Chew on This

    The novel depicts poverty positively, because it allows Billy to stay in the country longer and hunt with his dogs.

    Billy's poverty makes him a more sympathetic character. Without it, we wouldn't be so interested in him.

  • Religion

    Okay, so Billy doesn't exactly seem to be a church-going boy, but he sure is full of prayers. Over and over, Billy asks God for help when things get rough. In fact, God might as well be a member of Billy's family for all the book time He gets—and he's definitely more important than Billy's sisters. Billy doesn't attend church, but he is certainly a very religious character. So it's shocking—and the real crisis of the book—when he loses his faith (briefly) after his dogs die. You might even say that the most important story Where the Red Fern Grows tells is about Billy learning to believe in God again.

    Questions About Religion

    1. If Billy believes that "God helps those who help themselves," then why is he always asking God for help?
    2. How is Billy's faith different from his father's? From his mother's? 
    3. Billy's grandpa seems to be his hunting guide. Who is Billy's spiritual guide? His mom? His dad? Does he have one?

    Chew on This

    In telling this story, the adult Billy suggests that Old Dan and Little Ann were sent by God in answer to Billy and Billy's mom's prayers.

    The adult Billy doesn't actually believe that God sent Old Dan and Little Ann, but they're still a deeply religious force in his life.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Family, dogs, and the woods: these are Billy's top loves (though the order is certainly debatable). The woods are practically a second home to him, and they offer a peace and serenity that is seriously lacking in the hustle and bustle of town. But don't get too comfy. Where the Red Fern Grows never lets us forget how dangerous nature can be. Near-death experience follows near-death experience, until finally the natural world takes Billy's dogs away.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Why is Billy so comfortable in nature? Given that his sisters run away from watching their dad kill the raccoon, is there something about his being a boy that makes him particularly comfortable with nature?
    2. In what ways does Billy show respect for the natural world?
    3. Why does Billy refuse to kill the ghost coon? Especially considering that he chopped down the giant sycamore?
    4. If nature were a human character, how would you describe that person?

    Chew on This

    Nature and God are the same thing in this novel. Billy doesn't distinguish between nature worship and Christianity.

    The death of Billy's dogs severs his connection to nature. Without that connection, he can never return to his childhood home.

  • Education

    Who needs an education when you've got a good pair of dogs and a forest right outside your door. Right? Not so much. While we were distracted reading about all Billy's hard work trying to get his dogs, his mom was in the background praying her kids would one day have a "real" education. Where the Red Fern Grows shows that education is the driving motivation for Billy's parents. But it's not just about going to school and getting a formal education. Yes, they want to send their children to school, but they also want their kids to experience the world beyond their tiny farm. 'Cause seriously, who doesn't know what soda pop is?

    Questions About Education

    1. Billy's mom wants him to get a "real" education. What is a real education in her mind? What would Billy say is a "real" education?
    2. Why is Billy so resistant to the idea of going to school? What have his experiences with school been like? 
    3. Who do you think is the most educated person in the novel?

    Chew on This

    Billy gets a better education in the woods than he would ever in school because he learns about hard work and self-reliance.

    Little Ann and Old Dan teach Billy more than he teaches them.

  • Women and Femininity

    What place do women have in a young boys coming of age story? Well, Billy seems to be asking himself the same question. Where the Red Fern Grows is full of female characters—Billy has three younger sisters, fer cryin' out loud—but the only female character in the book who gets a name is a dog. (Well, except Grandma—Grandpa calls her "Nannie." Once.) Instead, we mostly get your stereotypical helpless and passive female characters. None of the women really do anything, aside from cry, giggle, and worry. So why is this theme so important? Billy learns to be a man in large part by distinguishing himself from women and women's work.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. None of the girls or women in this novel have names. How does this affect your view of them? Did you notice or pass over them?
    2. How would this novel change if Billy had little brothers instead of sisters?
    3. Who do you think is the strongest female character? Why might she be the strongest?
    4. In what ways does Billy try to protect or care for his sisters? Why does he do this?

    Chew on This

    Because Where the Red Fern Grows is specifically about a boy's coming of age, it would be very difficult for girls to relate to this book.

    To Billy, women aren't mysterious so much as they're just not interesting. He doesn't think there's anything worth knowing about the female world.