At the end of the novel, several months after the deaths of Old Dan and Little Ann, Billy Colman and his family prepare to move out of their Ozark mountain home and pursue a new life in town. As the family packs up their buggy to leave, Billy pays one last visit to his beloved hounds’ graves—and sees that a beautiful red fern has sprouted between them. According to “old Indian legend,” the red fern first sprouted where a young boy and girl froze to death while lost in a blizzard—rumor has it that “only an angel” can plant the seeds of the red fern in order to mark a “sacred” spot.
The red fern, then, comes to symbolize the sanctity of the spirit and the possibility of rebirth and renewal in the face of death and loss. Seeing the sacred fern upon his dogs’ graves allows Billy to make peace with their deaths at last—an integral part of his coming-of-age journey and his understanding of the circle of life—and prepare to move on from his boyhood home and his childish notions of life and death. “Part of my life is buried there too,” the older Billy says of his dogs’ graves at the end of the novel. With this, the sprouting of the red fern both externalizes and symbolizes the “death” of a “Part of [Billy’s] life” so that a new chapter can begin and a new understanding of the world can take root and grow.
The Red Fern Quotes in Where the Red Fern Grows
'Don't touch it, Mama," my oldest sister whispered. "It was planted by an angel."
Mama smiled and asked, "Have you heard the legend?"
'Yes, Mama," my sister said. “Grandma told me the story and I believe it, too."
With a serious look on his face, Papa said, "These hills are full of legends. Up until now I've never paid much attention to them, but now I don't know. Perhaps there is something to the legend of the red fern. Maybe this is God's way of helping Billy understand why his dogs died."
“I’m sure it is, Papa," I said, "and I do understand. I feel different now, and I don't hurt any more."
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.
[…] 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.