In Where the Red Fern Grows, the harsh realities of the world are never too far off: over the course of the novel, Billy Colman has both experiences and witnesses violence, cruelty, and death to varying degrees—both in the animal world an in the human one. Throughout the book, Wilson Rawls uses instances of violence and death, which are both necessary but often ugly or frightening parts of the circle of life, and Billy Colman’s reaction to witnessing or participating in acts of violence to ultimately argue that coming of age and growing up requires one to reckon with the darker parts of life.
Throughout Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls uses several major instances of violence, loss, and death to illustrate how as Billy Colman learns more about nature and the circle of life—including its hardest, darkest realities—he finds himself growing up, coming into his own, and becoming more capable. The first instance of violence Wilson Rawls uses to demonstrate the circle of life—and thus Billy’s slow but steady coming of age—takes place when two local brothers, Rubin and Rainie Pritchard, challenge Billy to a bet that his dogs can’t catch a large old raccoon they call the “ghost coon.” Billy reluctantly accepts the bet at his grandfather’s behest, but the hunt takes a bloody and deadly turn that irrevocably changes Billy’s understanding of the circle of life and marks an important milestone in his coming-of-age journey. After Rubin and Rainie turn against Billy and threaten to beat him once his dogs successfully “tree” the “ghost coon,” or chase it up into a tree so that it can be caught—they’d assumed Billy would lose the bet and so they are humiliated when Billy wins—Old Dan and the Pritchard brothers’ blue tick hound begin fighting. Little Ann joins the fray, and soon it seems as if Billy’s dogs will kill the Prichard boys’ hound. Rubin stops beating Billy, picks up Billy’s ax, and heads for the dogs with it—but he trips over a stick, impaling himself on the ax’s sharp blade. Rainie runs away in horror, but Billy stays with Rubin until he dies and he even (at Rubin’s request) pulls the ax from his abdomen. Rubin’s dog lives, but Rubin is dead, and Billy, having witnessed his first human death, trudges home to tell his parents what has happened. Billy’s reaction to this horrific incident shows that the experience has aged him. Though Billy’s mother laments that her “poor little boy” has seen such violence, Billy is no longer a “little boy” after the accident. While he wishes he could forget what he saw on the mountain, he knows that the warning his grandfather gives him just days after the incident—that Billy will carry what he witnessed “all through [his] life”—is correct.
The second major instance of violence that Wilson Rawls invokes in order to show how Billy’s experiences with death and violence mark milestones in his coming-of-age journey comes at the novel’s climax as Billy, Old Dan, and Little Ann face off against a fearsome mountain lion. The fight is an unbelievably bloody one—and the injuries Old Dan sustains from fighting off the cougar are fatal. Shortly after Old Dan succumbs to his injuries, Little Ann loses the will to live and she dies of self-inflicted starvation. Billy is devastated by the loss of his dogs—but as the months go by and he gets some distance from their deaths, he comes to see that Little Ann and Old Dan had their own places in the great circle of life.
Billy’s eventual acceptance of his dogs’ deaths represents another major milestone in his coming-of-age tale. After learning all his dogs have taught him—and after grieving their loss—Billy is no longer a boy, but a young man who understands that loss and death must touch every life. In the wake of his dogs’ deaths, Billy struggles to understand the “reason” why they died. He insists that neither he nor the dogs did anything wrong—there is no earthly justification, he feels, for their passing, and no balm that will ever take away the pain and injustice of that fact. However, in the novel’s final chapter, set nearly a year after the dogs’ deaths, Rawls introduces readers to a version of Billy who is very different despite only being about six months older. Billy is no longer angry about his dogs’ deaths—and when he spots a sacred red fern sprouting from the ground between their graves, he becomes even more sage and accepting of the tragedy of their loss. As Billy and his family prepare to leave the Ozarks to go live in town, Billy looks at the “sad and lonely” house where he was born—it is no longer his home, and he feels little regret or remorse when their wagon pulls away from the land on which he grew up. This moment symbolizes that Billy has at last come of age and acquired a grave new understanding of the world through a combination of suffering, grace, and acceptance.
Billy Colman’s coming-of-age tale is one suffused with darkness, violence, and death—but also with the joy of love and the beauty of nature. Ultimately, Wilson Rawls argues that no one can come of age and begin the process of growing up without bearing witness to the darker parts of the circle of life and understanding that just as all things bloom and grow, all things must meet death at some point.
The Circle of Life and Coming of Age ThemeTracker
The Circle of Life and Coming of Age 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.
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.”
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.
“Don't let him up, Rubin," Rainie said. "Beat the hell out of him, or hold him and let me do it."
Just then I heard growling, and a commotion off to one side. […] I heard Rainie yell, "Rubin, they're killing Old Blue."
Rubin jumped up off me.
I clambered up and looked over to the fight. What I saw thrilled me. Faithful Little Ann […] had gone to the assistance of Old Dan.
I knew my dogs were very close to each other. Everything they did was done as a combination, but I never expected this.
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.
"l never saw anything like it. Little Ann wouldn't have fought the lion if it hadn't been for Old Dan. All she was doing was helping him. He wouldn't quit. He just stayed right in there till the end. I even had to pry his jaws loose from the lion's throat after the lion was dead."
Glancing at Old Dan, Papa said, “It's in his blood, Billy. He's a hunting hound, and the best one I ever saw. He only has two loves—you and hunting. That's all he knows."
'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.