Wilson Rawls’s Where the Red Fern Grows is a classic of children’s literature, but one of the most groundbreaking things about the novel is its treatment of masculinity and emotion. Throughout the novel, Wilson Rawls shows his protagonist Billy Colman emoting openly—and Rawls shows the majority of men in Billy’s life, including his father, doing the same and even encouraging Billy’s softer side. Rawls ultimately argues that society’s understandings of masculinity can—and absolutely should—make space for a wide range of emotion, tenderness, and depth of feeling.
Billy Colman is a young boy who often finds himself flooded with feelings, unable to hold back whoops of laughter or falls of tears when they come to him. Though Billy is, toward the beginning of the novel, given to trying to control or conceal his emotions, he soon learns to be more open and nonjudgmental about them with the help of the men in his life—his father and his grandfather—who never discourage Billy from expressing himself however he needs to. Early on in the novel, Billy is given to intense emotions—but more often than not he tries to hide them or keep them to himself. When he asks his parents for a pair of dogs and they refuse him, explaining that times are too hard to afford anything other than what’s needed to survive, Billy cries himself to sleep; in moments of emotion, he often finds himself fighting or choking back tears or reluctantly letting them slip out. Billy’s instincts about hiding his emotions early on in the book, however, soon give way as he comes to accept that sometimes one can’t—and shouldn’t—try to keep a lid on their biggest feelings.
Billy’s own father and grandfather are boisterous men who cry “big tears” when they laugh; who express their love for each other (and for Billy) earnestly through word and deed; and who equate masculinity not just with hard work and grit but with honesty, openness, and faith. Over the course of the novel, as Billy’s relationships with his dogs, with nature, and with the men in his family continue to grow, he becomes more comfortable with his own emotions. He cries openly in moments of pride and frustration alike, such as the first time he hears Old Dan “bawl” to signal catching the trail of a nearby raccoon or when he becomes exhausted trying to chop down a giant sycamore in which a raccoon is hiding. Billy cries at the sight of his mother crying when she admits to her fears about him staying out all night in the mountains. He also cries as his dogs, in a “savage and brutal” fight, take down a large raccoon. He cries when his mother gives him permission to travel with his father and grandfather to a nearby hunting competition, and he cries when Little Ann wins best-in-show at the dog show there. Billy still sometimes judges his own tears as “silly” or unnecessary—but more often than not, he allows his emotions to flow openly, whatever they may be.
Sometimes, Billy simply can’t hold his emotions back—he is, after all, only 12 for the majority of the novel—but even when he himself still expresses reservations about showing the full range of his feelings, the people around him never encourage him to stop crying or to deny his feelings. After Billy’s dogs die and his emotions go haywire, his parents do ask him to stop his tears—but only because they begin to fear that Billy will make himself sick with sadness and desperation. His parents never police his emotions at any other point in the novel, consistently allowing the young boy to cry when he’s moved to do so.
“It’s hard for a man to stand and watch an old hound fight… […] especially if that man has memories in his heart like I had in mine,” the older Billy writes during the novel’s first chapter, which is set many years in the future. Though this passage comes early in the novel, when put in context chronologically, it shows the ways in which Billy has grown to understand and respect his own emotions over time. He acknowledges that even “for a man,” it’s difficult to bear witness to pain and suffering—and that a man shouldn’t resist his memories or emotions, but rather let them guide him through his most difficult moments. The older Billy ends up intervening in the street dogs’ brawl and tenderly caring for the hound caught in the middle of it all.
Where the Red Fern Grows is a tearjerker of a book. Its intensity of action and emotion are palpable from beginning to end—and it is significant that a young boy is at the center of it all. As Billy Colman learns to process feelings of joy, longing, and grief, he becomes proud of his immense capacity for feeling rather than embarrassed by his inward emotions or outward demonstrations of them. Through Billy, Rawls suggests that all young boys should be taught that their emotions are valid, that their expressiveness is important, and that masculinity should not be dependent upon or defined by stoicism and silence.
Masculinity and Emotion ThemeTracker
Masculinity and Emotion Quotes in Where the Red Fern Grows
By this time, my fighting blood was boiling. It's hard for a man to stand and watch an old hound fight against such odds, especially if that man has memories in his heart like I had in mine. I had seen the time when an old hound like that had given his life so that I might live.
Papa set me on his lap and we had a good talk. He told me how hard times were, and that it looked like a man couldn't get a fair price for anything he raised. Some of the farmers had quit farming and were cutting railroad ties so they could feed their families. If things didn't get better, that's what he'd have to do. He said he'd give anything if he could get some good hounds for me, but there didn't seem to be any way he could right then.
I went off to bed with my heart all torn up in little pieces, and cried myself to sleep.
It was too much for my grandfather. He turned and walked away. I saw the glasses come off, and the old red handkerchief come out. I heard the good excuse of blowing his nose. He stood for several seconds with his back toward me. When he turned around, I noticed his eyes were moist.
In a quavering voice, he said, "Well, Son, it's your money. You worked for it, and you worked hard. You got it honestly, and you want some dogs. We're going to get those dogs. Be damned! Be damned!"
One pup started my way. I held my breath. On he came until I felt a scratchy little foot on mine. The other pup followed. A warm puppy tongue caressed my sore foot.
I heard the Stationmaster say, "They already know you."
I knelt down and gathered them in my arms. I buried my face between their wiggling bodies and cried. The Stationmaster, sensing something more than just two dogs and a boy, waited in silence.
Papa whacked him again and it was all over. […]
After the coon was killed, I walked over. Papa was trying to get the coon's paw from the trap. […] A sorrowful look came over Papa's face… […] "Billy," he said, "l want you to take a hammer and pull the nails from every one of those traps. […] I don't think this is very sportsmanlike.”
I was expecting one of them to bawl, but when it came it startled me. The deep tones of Old Dan's voice jarred the silence around me. […] A strange feeling came over me. […] This was what I had prayed for, worked and sweated for, my own little hounds bawling on the trail of a river coon. I don't know why I cried, but I did.
With tears in my eyes, I looked again at the big sycamore. A wave of anger came over me. Gritting my teeth, I said, "l don't care how big you are, I'm not going to let my dogs down. I told them if they put a coon in a tree I would do the rest and I'm going to. I'm going to cut you down. I don't care if it takes me a whole year."
There, scratched deep in the soft leaves were two little beds. One was smaller than the other. Looking at Little Ann, I read the answer in her warm gray eyes.
Old Dan hadn't been alone when he had gone back to the tree. She too had gone along. There was no doubt that in the early morning she had come home to get me.
There was a lump in my throat as I said, “I'm sorry little girl, I should've known."
Kneeling down between my dogs, I cried and prayed. “Please God, give me the strength to finish the job. […] Please help me finish the job." I was trying to rewrap my hands so I could go back to work when I heard a low droning sound. […] I looked up. High in the top of the big sycamore a breeze had started the limbs to swaying. A shudder ran through the huge trunk. […]
It started popping and snapping. I knew it was going to fall. […]
I held my breath. The top of the big sycamore rocked and swayed.
I opened my mouth to call Old Dan. I wanted to tell him to come on and we'd go home as there was nothing we could do. The words just wouldn't come out. I couldn't utter a sound. I lay my face against the icy cold bark of the sycamore. I thought of the prayer I had said when I had asked God to help me get two hound pups. I knelt down and sobbed out a prayer. I asked for a miracle which would save the life of my little dog. I promised all the things that a young boy could if only He would help me.
About halfway up, far out on a limb, I found the ghost coon. As I started toward him, my dogs stopped bawling. I heard something I had heard many times. The sound was like the cry of a small baby. It was the cry of a ringtail coon when he knows it is the end of the trail. I never liked to hear this cry, but it was all in the game, the hunter and the hunted.
As I sat there on the limb, looking at the old fellow, he cried again. Something came over me. I didn't want to kill him.
The judge said, "Well, have you ever seen that? Look over there!"
Old Dan was standing perfectly still, with eyes closed and head hanging down. Little Ann was licking at his cut and bleeding ears.
"She always does that," I said. "If you'll watch, when she gets done with him, he'll do the same for her."
We stood and watched until they had finished doctoring each other. Then, trotting side by side, they disappeared in the darkness.
“Please go just a little further," I begged. "I just know we'll hear them."
Still no one spoke or made a move to go on.
Stepping over to my father, I buried my face in his old mackinaw coat. Sobbing, I pleaded with him not to turn back. He patted my head. “Billy," he said, “a man could freeze to death in this storm, and besides, your dogs will give up and come in."
"That's what has me worried," I cried. 'They won't come in. They won't, Papa. Little Ann might, but not Old Dan. He'd die before he'd leave a coon in a tree."
I went berserk, and charged into the fight.
There in the flinty hills of the Ozarks, I fought for the lives of my dogs. I fought with the only weapon I had, the sharp cutting blade of a double-bitted ax.
Screaming like a madman, with tears running down my face, I hacked and chopped at the big snarling mountain cat.