Whose Right-of-Passage is it Anyway?

There are male-specific rights-of-passage for boys. The first fish. The first hunt. The first shave. I’ve been rather melancholy about the whole idea of losing my youngest son to manhood. Sure, he’s just on the tail end of nine, but I catch glimpses of the future in his evolving jaw line, his size 10 ½ shoe, his eager independence, his budding bravado. Kiddo is a lot like me (minus the shoe size and Y chromosome), but his father plays an ever greater role in his life. I understand it, but it isn’t easy on me. A natural gender divide will soon grow between us. I know that our snuggles, and butterfly kisses, and reading rituals are on borrowed time.

Today, I’m a little sentimental. You see, last night, Kiddo finished reading WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS, by Wilson Rawls. He didn’t have to pick up this particular book, when he’s surrounded by so many new, trendy, and “cool” titles to choose from. Was it enough to hear me, his mom, taut this as my absolute favorite book “when I was your age?”

OLD YELLER and RED FERN illuminated a part of my inner self. I knew then that I would never be a hunter, but I wouldn’t admonish hunters who respect the animals and have an eye on conservation and humane principles. Honestly, I would have sooner made pets of the raccoons. But, I wasn’t reading about me. I was reading about Billy. And though I lived a very different childhood, I enjoyed the literary journey to another place and time via such vivid language. The story introduced me to a piece of Americana, though I didn’t realize it at the time. The redeeming quality that has kept this book a classic is the relationship between Billy and his dogs. Most kids can relate to that.

Like my son, I was also nine years old when I read about Billy, Old Dan, and Little Ann. I read RED FERN at least four times as a kid. Imagine my elation at Kiddo’s reading choice.

Last night’s bedtime had passed, but Kiddo begged. “Ten more pages to the end, Mom. Pleeeeeeaaase?” His dog, Sparky, was nestled in his arms, doing all he could to pry his human’s hands away from the book and onto his ears.

I watched Kiddo’s eager expression through those final delicious words, and thought of myself in pigtails with a flashlight under the covers. Then, over his shoulder, I spotted a photo of my son, taken a year ago, on his first hunt with his dad. By the time he closed the cover and took a deep sigh, I was smiling. This was our moment, one that only I could be present for. And I wished to freeze it forever.

“Wow,” he said. “I want to write to the author.”
“He died a long time ago,” I said.
“Then you should write the sequel, Mom.”
I was too choked up then to respond.
“What did you think?” I finally asked.
“This is my favorite book ever,” he said. “Where’s the Old Yeller book?”
My heart swelled and my eyes welled. That’s my boy!

As he trotted off to bed, I opened RED FERN and inhaled the musty aroma of my youth. My eyes immediately fell on an early paragraph:

“It’s strange indeed how memories can lie dormant in a man’s (or woman’s) mind for so many years. Yet those memories can be awakened and brought forth fresh and new, just by something you’ve seen, or something you’ve heard, or the sight of an old familiar face.”

Strange indeed! Can this shared love of a fifty year old book mark a right-of-passage? If so, whose is it? My son’s, or mine?

by Wilson Rawls
Doubleday Books, 1961

TRIVIA: Wilson Rawls (b.1913, d.1984) left his impoverished Ozark home as a young teenager and eeked out a survival by working various construction jobs, jumping railroad cars around the country. He began writing stories during this time but, without formal schooling, his grammar, punctuation, and spelling were terrible.

Just before he married, he worried that his new bride would find his stories, so riddled with imperfection. He burned the entire lot! Eventually, his wife learned about them and pleaded with him to rewrite one. He chose to write what is now WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS. It took him three weeks to rewrite the 35,000 word novel. His wife copy-edited it. It was first published in the Saturday Evening Post, which is where a Doubleday editor discovered it.

2 Responses to “Whose Right-of-Passage is it Anyway?”

  1. Cynthia Leitich Smith

    I find this post fascinating in part because years ago I was interviewed for a Horn Book piece about depictions of hunting in youth literature.

    At the time, I was reluctant to be too forthcoming. Members of my family hunt, and I'm certainly not ashamed of them.

    But the perspective of the industry is so dominated by the upper-middle class, urban northeast (naturally, as publishing is based in NYC).

    I wish someone would ask me about it now that I'm more seasoned and feel less professionally vulnerable to the approval of that particular world view.

    I wonder if we sometimes struggle to connect books with kids across the nation (and world) in part because, throughout the body of literature, we're discounting the lifestyles and family traditions of a huge percentage of them.

  2. Donna

    Thanks for chiming in, Cyn. You bring up a really great point that brings up the whole banned book debate. It would be irresponsible of us to limit our stories' settings and situations to middle class, white collar environments. Everything in RED FERN depicts a piece of American history. Heck, it depicts modern day in certain regions. The hunting, the mountain setting, the poverty, the love between boy and dogs, it was all real. And that's probably why Kiddo is so enamored.

    I should have clarified in my post that my love of RED FERN stems purely from the relationship between the boy and his dogs. That's why I loved the book so much.