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Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls

Doubleday, 1961

It’s true, everything that makes you happy is going to end at some point, and nothing good ends well. It’s like if you buy a puppy and bring it home to your family and you say, “Hey look, everyone, we’re all gonna cry soon. Look what I brought home. I brought home us crying in a few years. Here we go. Countdown to sorrow with a puppy.”

-Louis C.K.

No need for a spoiler alert. Where the Red Fern Grows is a coming-of-age story about a boy and his beloved red hound pups. Surely pet lovers or fans of coming-of-age lit aren’t the only ones who can see where this one is headed.

Which is odd really. It is a children’s book after all. I read it as youngster myself. I liked to read and was a boy obsessed with dogs. Obvious match. Thinking about it now, I am trying to recall how I came across it at all, way back in those dark ages of youth where best seller lists, word of mouth, and card catalogs were the the mode of browsing du jour.

I do not think that it was a reading assignment. Sure, a teacher may have recommended it. I am not really sure. What sticks though, decades later, is the story itself and the emotional investment it induced.

Yes, I know it is still there, for in my heart I believe the legend of the sacred red fern.

Obviously, there was the sadness. I think the deaths of Old Dan and Little Ann were as gut-wrenching for me as they were for Billy Colman. But therein was the hook—a children’s book that refused to shield its targeted audience from adult subject matter, namely the heartbreak of death.

I never saw my dogs when they got between the lion and me, but they were there. Side by side, they rose up from the ground as one. They sailed straight into those jaws of death, their small, red bodies taking ripping, slashing claws meant for me.

Confronting a young reader with cold hard realities of life and death is jarring yes, but as said young reader, to be treated as an adult and included in the discussion at all, well, that was the highest reward. And I was ready for it. More than ready for it. There comes a time when nothing is going to stop you. You climb the rope in gym class straight to the intimidating height of the ceiling where a slap of the beam above serves as proof positive that you have arrived.

I had the wind of a deer, the muscles of a country boy, a heart full of dog love, and a strong determination. I wasn’t scared of the darkness, or the mountains, for I was raised in those mountains.

An interesting thing about going back to a book from your childhood is the distortion your adult self brings to the proceedings. Which isn’t fair because the younger you is not present at the trial and therefore cannot argue the only relevant version of the case. He is back in fifth grade thinking about Old Dan and Little Ann. Thinking too about the implications with regards to his own Schnauzer mutt at home, Sam.

I’m sure the red fern has grown and has completely covered the two little mounds. I know it is still there, hiding its secret beneath those long, red leaves, but it wouldn’t be hidden from me for part of my life is buried there, too.

Back to Louis C.K. and the countdown to sorrow. A common refrain from anyone who has lost a beloved dog or pet is, “Never again” even though such a sentiment does nothing to honor the legacy of the departed.

The analytic mind begins to consider all of the data. The priceless memories, puppy pictures, home movies, favorite tug-of-war toys, the horrific times he escaped and the inexplicable relief at being reunited to wake up another day with your best buddy beside you.

The joy to be found by simply opening the front door. Every day. Every day.

Eliminating heartache would seem to be a perfectly sound goal if not for the required forfeiture of all else.

Unconditional love is sacred. You can let the pain of loss poison you into giving up or you can choose to live inside the love that was always forever.

I looked at his grave and, with tears in my eyes, I voiced these words: “You were worth it, old friend, and a thousand times over.”