At the heart of Where the Red Fern Grows is the beautiful relationship between a boy and his dogs. When Billy Colman buys himself two hound pups, he makes a lifelong promise to care for them both. As the dogs grow and learn to hunt, they become much more than pets. Wilson Rawls ultimately argues that through caring for dogs and learning to see them as soulful, feeling, capable creatures, human beings can learn important lessons about hard work, resilience, and the relationship between loyalty and love.
Over the course of the novel, Wilson Rawls tracks Billy’s evolving relationships with his dogs in order to show how Old Dan and Little Ann teach Billy important lessons about life and love. The first major lesson Billy’s dogs teach him concerns the value of hard work. When Billy is 10, he becomes consumed with the idea of getting a pair of dogs with whom he can hunt raccoons. Billy’s Mama and Papa, however, tell him that they can’t afford to buy him the purebred dogs he wants. Over the next two years, Billy commits to saving every penny he earns through odd jobs such as selling bait to local fishermen and blackberries to his grandpa. After a lot of hard work, Billy saves up enough to order a pair of red hounds and have them sent from Kentucky to the nearest town, Tahlequah, 20 miles away. Billy travels on foot to Tahlequah to collect his pups; as he opens the crate they’ve traveled in and he cries as the pups cover him in licks, the Tahlequah stationmaster (who has been looking over the package since its arrival) marvels that the pups “already know” Billy. Billy feels he is destined to have these dogs—and as he meets them for the first time, it is apparent even to the stationmaster that there is something profound or even fated about the dogs’ arrival in Billy’s life. The reason, perhaps, that their arrival feels so fated is because of how hard Billy has worked for them. He feels he knows them because they have already taught him something important: that hard work done meticulously and diligently over a long time pays off.
The second major lesson Billy’s dogs teach him is about resilience, perseverance, and bravery. After getting his dogs, Billy wastes no time in training them to be top-notch hunters. As Billy works with them day after day—and, once hunting season starts, takes them out to hunt each night—his relationship with the dogs develops even further. Billy is proud of his dogs’ hard work and devotion to their tasks. Though the dogs’ skills as hunters are innate, Billy begins to sense that they have even deeper reasons for their commitment to the hunt. Billy loves his dogs from the second he meets them—but as he begins working with them and getting to know them, he comes to see that their devotion to him and to their work is far beyond ordinary. Billy is grateful for his dogs’ resilience and he attempts to repay them by promising to work just as hard as they do on each and every hunt. The dogs’ determination and collective support during these nightly hunts becomes, over the course of the novel, a profound metaphor for the unique lessons dogs can teach their owners about resilience in the face of difficulty or even danger.
The third major lesson Billy’s dogs teach him is about love and loyalty. “People have been trying to understand dogs since the beginning of time,” says one of the men at the hunting competition Billy attends toward the end of the novel. He continues, “You can read every day where a dog saved the life of a drowning child, or lay down his life for his master. Some people call this loyalty. I don’t. […] I call it love.” In this passage, even a minor character is shown to understand what Billy and his family have already come to learn: that a dog’s love is like no other, and that through having a relationship with a dog, one can come to understand new things about the limitlessness of love and loyalty.
Rawls further examines the dogs’ sense of loyalty not just to Billy, but to one another. Toward the end of the novel, Billy and his dogs find themselves up against a mountain lion one night while hunting. Dan and Ann defend Billy from the vicious animal, and Dan is mortally wounded in the fight. After he dies the next morning, Ann loses the will to live and she, too, dies within a few days. Billy is left devastated—but he begins to take stock of just how much his dogs taught him while they lived. As a rare “sacred,” red fern sprouts between Ann and Dan’s graves, Wilson Rawls symbolizes the sanctity of the relationship Billy and his dogs shared. Dan gave his life to protect Billy, and Ann was so connected to her brother Dan that she gave up her life to be with him shortly after his death. Rawls further signals the lifelong poignancy of the three’s devotion to one another when he has the older Billy state that “part of [his own] life is buried there [with the dogs] too.” Dan and Ann’s sacrifice teaches Billy that there is no limit to a dog’s loyalty—and he carries the desire to embody the love and devotion his dogs showed both to him and to one another throughout his life.
Where the Red Fern Grows portrays dogs as creatures that stand to teach their human owners a great deal about faithfulness, devotion, persistence, and tenderness. In understanding and respecting dogs and other animals, Rawls argues, human beings can learn to develop a greater appreciation for their own lives and for the values of loyalty, selflessness, and perseverance.
The Lessons of a Dog’s Love ThemeTracker
The Lessons of a Dog’s Love 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.
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!"
By the road it was thirty-two miles away, but as the crow flies, it was only twenty miles. I went as the crow flies, straight through the hills.
Although I had never been to town in my life […] I had the river to guide me.
[…] In a mile-eating trot, I moved along. 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.
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.
What I saw in my pups gave me courage. My knees quit shaking and my heart stopped pounding.
I figured the lion had scented my pups. The more I thought about anything harming them, the madder I got. I was ready to die for my dogs.
It was wonderful indeed how I could have heart-to-heart talks with my dogs and they always seemed to understand. […] Although they couldn't talk in my terms, they had a language of their own that was easy to understand. Sometimes I would see the answer in their eyes, and again it would be in the friendly wagging of their tails. […] In some way, they would always answer.
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.
“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.
Both of them started eating at the same time.
With an astonished look on his face, Grandpa exclaimed, “Well, I'll be darned. I never saw anything like that. Why, I never saw a hound that wouldn't eat. Did you train them to do that?"
"No, Grandpa,” I said. "They've always been that way. They won't take anything away from each other, and everything they do, they do it as one."
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 heard the judge say to my father, “This beats anything I have ever seen. Why, those dogs can read that boy's mind.” […]
Papa said, "Yes, I know what you mean. I've seen them do things that I couldn't understand. I'd never heard of hounds that ever had any affection for anyone, but these dogs are different. Did you know they won't hunt with anyone but him, not even me?"
"What I can't understand is why they stayed with the tree," Mr. Benson said. […]
“Men,” said Mr. Kyle, "people have been trying to understand dogs ever since the beginning of time. […] You can read every day where a dog saved the life of a drowning child, or lay down his life for his master. Some people call this loyalty. I don't. I may be wrong, but I call it love… […] It's a shame that people all over the world can't have that kind of love in their hearts… […] There would be no wars, slaughter, or murder; no greed or selfishness. It would be the kind of world that God wants us to have.”
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.