Old Yeller Summary

Fred Gipson

Old Yeller

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Old Yeller Summary

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Old Yeller is a coming of age novel set in 1860s Texas that details the relationship between the Coates family, especially the 14-year-old son, Travis, and a stray dog named Old Yeller. The dog is named both for his dingy yellow coat (“yeller” as pronounced in the southern accent that permeates the narrative) and his bark, which sounds more like a yell than the standard animal call. Yeller comes into the Coates family’s life after Jim, the father of the family, leaves on a cattle drive to Kansas. Before he leaves, Jim tells Travis that he is now the man of the house until he returns home, a designation which motivates Travis to take responsibility and make sacrifices for the good of his family. If Travis can prove himself worthy of the designation of being a man, his father promises to give him a man’s horse.

Although the Coates family is at the center of the narrative, it is Travis’ relationship with Yeller that is the focus. When Yeller is first introduced, Travis not only finds him to be a nuisance but actively despises him. The first time the dog is seen by Travis and the reader is the day after Jim has left the family. Yeller has devoured a piece of meat that the family was about to prepare for a meal. Yeller continues to cause trouble, with only younger brother Arliss’ devotion to him keeping Travis from pushing him away from the household.

Travis changes his stance only after Yeller displays his singular heroism and instinct. Arliss, for whom collecting critters is a beloved pastime, grabs hold of a bear cub in the forest and is confronted by the mother bear. Travis is too far away to help Arliss, but when things seem beyond hope, Yeller sprints through the trees and accosts the bear, giving Arliss and Travis enough time to escape. Once the Coates boys are safe, Yeller returns to the home. In his relief, Travis discovers not only how much he loves his brother, but that he cares for Yeller as well. After this incident, Yeller helps the family with numerous problems, including improving Travis’ hunting prospects and protecting the family from a variety of dangerous animals.

This new-found relationship between Travis and Yeller is tested twice shortly after it is established. The first time is when a neighbor, Bud Searcy and his granddaughter Lisbeth come over to discuss local gossip, and Travis discovers that Yeller has been stealing food from nearby ranches. Instead of disclosing Yeller’s culpability in the matter, he decides to keep Yeller in the house during the night, a decision which requires a good deal of discipline as he must keep the usually restless Yeller in his bedroom with him and Arliss as they sleep. Two more important plot points are revealed in the meeting with the Searcys: Rabies, called by its former name of hydrophobia, has been spreading throughout the area, and Lisbeth’s dog is expected to soon have a litter of Yeller’s puppies. Shortly after, Yeller’s former owner meets the Coates family. Initially he asks for Yeller, but after seeing the relationship the Coates have with him, he gives the dog to them in exchange for a home cooked meal. Before he leaves, he warns Travis that rabies is infecting a vast amount of animals, and he must be careful to make sure that Yeller does not become one of them.

At the end of the novel, the Coates family are once again attacked by a wild animal, a wolf, and saved by Yeller’s bravery. Yeller is bit during the attack and becomes infected with rabies. Travis knows that despite his connection to Yeller and Yeller’s protection of his family, the dog must be killed before it becomes fully rabid and does any harm to him and his family. As the man of the house while his father is gone, Travis takes it upon himself to put Yeller out of his misery with his hunting rifle. Travis is heartbroken by what he has done, but knows that it was the right thing to do for his family. Travis is given one of Yeller’s puppies by Lisbeth. The puppy almost instantly shows itself to have its father’s character, causing trouble in a way that endears him to Travis and Arliss. Jim comes home and gives Travis the promised horse in accordance with the strength and maturity he has shown while his father was away. The novel ends with Travis comfortable in the knowledge that he will ride out to hunt on his new horse with his new dog following just behind.