Where the Red Fern Grows Summary & Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 44-page guide for “Where the Red Fern Grows” by Wilson Rawls includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 23 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Bond Between a Boy and His Dogs and Billy’s Coming-of-Age.
Wilson Rawls was born in 1913 in the Ozark Mountains in the Oklahoma/Arkansas region of the United States, where Rawls time spent roaming the hills with his dogs. His level of formal education left him unsure of his formal writing ability, and he disposed of his manuscripts. However, his wife encouraged him to start again, leading to the publication of Where the Red Fern Grows in 1961 and The Summer of the Monkeys 15 years later. Where the Red Fern Grows originally appeared as a three-part work of serialized fiction called The Hounds of Youth in The Saturday Evening Post.
As the novel opens, Billy Colman comes upon a stray coonhound fighting with a pack of dogs. He rescues the stray and takes it home, setting it free as soon as it is well enough to return home. This situation evokes memories of Billy’s youth in the Ozarks of Oklahoma in the early 1930s, and the rest of the story is from his childhood perspective.
Young Billy wants a pair of coonhounds, but they are not affordable for his family. He comes across an advertisement for a kennel in Kentucky that’s selling coonhounds for $25. Billy begins working odd jobs, and with his grandfather’s assistance, saves $50 in two years. The kennel not only honors its ad, but the price has actually dropped to $40 for the pair. Since the mail service does not deliver live animals, Billy makes his way on foot through the hills to a freight depot and picks up a male and a female puppy. He uses his extra $10 to purchase gifts for his family.
On his journey home, Billy passes an evening at Robber’s Cave in the Sparrow Hawk Mountains. During the night, a mountain lion paces outside the cave, kept away by Billy’s fire. The following morning, Billy sees the names Dan and Ann carved into a heart on a tree and names his puppies Old Dan and Little Ann.
Billy begins training the dogs. As Billy spends time with the dogs, he realizes that Old Dan’s strong trait is bravery, while Little Ann’s is intelligence. They bond with each other and with Billy. When the hunting season opens, they “tree” a raccoon in a sycamore that Billy calls the “big tree.” Billy promised the dogs he would do the rest if they were to tree a raccoon. He spends two days trying to cut down the tree aided by a strong wind, and the dogs take the raccoon down.
They go hunting nightly for months, and Billy becomes the most successful hunter in the area, saving his dogs several times. Billy and his grandfather bet the mean neighbor boys, Rubin and Rainie Pritchard, that Billy’s dogs can catch the legendary “ghost coon.” The Pritchards join the hunt. When the dogs manage to tree the raccoon, Billy will not kill it. Rubin’s dog gets into a fight with Dan and Ann, and Rubin goes after Billy’s dogs with an ax. He trips over a stick and falls on the ax, killing the boy. Rainie runs away without aiding his brother. Later, Billy feels guilty, and he takes flowers to Rubin’s grave.
After some time passes, Billy’s grandfather enters him in a championship raccoon hunt. Little Ann wins a best-looking dog contest before the main competition starts. Four days into the competition, Old Dan and Little Ann tree three raccoons and get into the final round. A blizzard starts on the sixth day, and Billy’s team cannot locate the dogs. When they manage to find them, Billy’s grandfather hurts his ankle. As they build a fire, Billy’s father cuts down a tree, and Billy’s hounds take down two of the three raccoons it contains. They chase the third one into a tree and win the championship and a $300 prize.
Billy continues hunting, and one night, the dogs tree a mountain lion. Billy attempts to protect the dogs with an ax, but they end up saving him. They kill the mountain lion, but Old Dan is badly injured and later dies. Little Ann is overwrought with sadness and dies a few days later at the grave of Old Dan. Billy visits the graves of his dogs and sees a red fern growing between them. Native American legend has it that only an angel can plant such a fern. Billy and his family see this as a sign that it is time to use the prize money to move out of the Ozarks and get the children a good education.
The story weaves a connectedness to nature with themes of prayer and faith, and Billy often cites divine intervention. Billy’s relationship with his dogs and their subsequent deaths (leading to a move from the Ozarks), symbolizes the end of Billy’s childhood.