At 10 years old, Billy Colman is struck out of nowhere by “that wonderful disease of puppy love”—seemingly overnight, he becomes consumed with longing for a pair of hunting hounds. Billy approaches his father one evening and he asks if he can have them, but his father ruefully explains that their family does not have enough money for such a purchase. Having failed to convince Papa, Billy goes to Mama—she, too, refuses him out of hand, telling Billy that he’s too young to be a hunter. Billy is devastated that despite living in the “finest hunting country in the world,” he is not allowed to have his own dogs.
This passage sets up a lot of crucial information that will come into play throughout the rest of the novel. Billy’s family is poor and they live in a rural environment—importantly, Billy seems ignorant of these facts, willfully or otherwise. This passage thus shows that Billy is a passionate young boy but that he still has a lot of growing up to do.
Billy describes his family’s homestead: they live in the foothills at the base of the Ozarks in Northeastern Oklahoma. The homestead is on a plot of Cherokee land which was allotted to Billy’s mother due to “the Cherokee blood that flow[s] in her veins.” The land is fertile and rich, and Billy’s father runs a small farm just beyond their log house. Billy often spends his days exploring the countryside, familiarizing himself with game trails and animal tracks. He is most fascinated by raccoons—he loves their wily smarts and fastidiousness.
This passage shows just how important the natural world is to Billy and his family; they have an intimate relationship with the land they live on. The family depends on the land not just for their sustenance and livelihood, but also for their happiness and enrichment—with little else to do in the mountains and no money to do it with, Billy must rely on the natural world to give him an education and a source of entertainment.
Billy’s “dog-wanting” becomes so intense that he starts moping around the house, “grieving” with each passing day and refusing to eat or play. One evening, Billy overhears Mama tell Papa that something needs to be done about Billy’s melancholy. Papa explains that he offered to buy Billy a mutt, but Billy only wants a specific breed of purebred hound—a pair will cost $75, an enormous sum of money to the Colman family. Overhearing his parents’ woes, Billy feels saddened by their money struggles. He goes to his father and he says that he will settle for a single hound. Papa looks at Billy sadly and he explains that times are hard—most of the farmers in the region have given up and have turned to the railroad to find work, and Papa may soon face the same fate. Billy goes to his room and he cries himself to sleep.
In this passage, Rawls investigates the roles that money, masculinity, and emotion all play in Billy’s life. His family is struggling to get through the Great Depression—a time of hardship not just for Billy’s family but for families everywhere. When Papa tries to level with Billy about their family’s reality—man-to-man, so to speak—it’s clear that Billy isn’t yet ready for that kind of emotional load. He retreats into himself, embarrassed by his depth of emotion as he wrestles with the idea of not getting what he wants.
The next day, Papa brings home three steel traps from the store. Billy is so excited he begins crying on the spot. The next morning, after a lesson from Papa, Billy gets to work setting traps—but he only manages to catch and enrage the family’s housecat, Samie. Billy’s sisters scream and cry as the cat struggles in the trap. Mama rushes over to help and she manages to get Samie free. As Samie skulks away, Mama declares that Samie has learned his lesson—but over the next several days, Samie gets caught in Billy’s traps many more times. Eventually, Samie runs away and he becomes an outdoor cat who only visits occasionally for food and milk. Billy feels guilty about scaring Samie off—but every time Samie visits home, Billy can’t help but notice how wild the cat has become.
This passage shows how deeply Billy’s parents love him. They want to provide for him and help him have a happy childhood, even if they can’t get him exactly what he wants. Though this incident with Samie is relatively lighthearted, it’s also an important teaching moment for Billy about the consequences of hunting animals. As Billy begins exploring the natural world and his love of hunting more and more—with his parents’ help—he learns about the violence inherent within the pursuit he so loves, and how that violence comes to affect the relationships between animals and people.
Papa helps Billy trap opossums, skunks, rabbits, and squirrels in the cane fields beyond the house and he teaches Billy to skin them. In spite of Billy’s success trapping small game, Billy remains determined to catch himself a raccoon—but raccoons are too smart for Billy’s little traps, and Billy finds daily evidence of the tools and tricks they use to steal food from the traps without getting caught.
Billy wants to catch a raccoon because he admires their wiles and smarts so deeply. To catch a raccoon would prove that Billy understands the natural world and that he can successfully outwit the animals in their natural habitat.
After a while, Billy begins longing for his hounds again when hunting season starts and he hears a hunter and his hound out in the mountains each night. The hunter’s whoops and the dog’s bawls are too much for poor Billy—he resumes begging his parents to buy him the dogs, but his requests are only met with his mother’s tears and his father’s sadness. In order to distract Billy from his longing, Papa tells Billy that he’s old enough to start working in the fields. Billy is excited—he feels he has “finally grown up to be a man.”
This passage suggests that the root of Billy’s “dog-wanting” perhaps lies in his desire to prove himself as a man capable of taming the wilderness. Papa’s offer to let Billy work in the fields allows Billy to satiate this desire in another way—even if he doesn’t get to experience the freedom of roaming the woods with a pair of hunting dogs at his side.