There's always that one book we were forced to read in English class that we can never forget - for better or for worse. Occasionally, the teacher would roll in the TV cart and slip in a VHS tape so the class could watch the film adaptation of whatever story they just had to hand-write a report on. If you can't think of an example off-hand, look no further than Wilson Rawls's Where the Red Fern Grows book from 1961 and the 1974 film adaptation.
While both the book and film are considered classics, a closer examination reveals that they are also classically traumatizing for young readers. Legends of frozen children, kids accidentally mutilating themselves, and animal maulings are all fair game in Where the Red Fern Grows. We're all familiar with sad pet movies, and this one might just top the list - not the least bit because Where the Red Fern Grows is a true story (or, at the very least, is based on real events from Rawls's childhood).
Billy Loses Both His Dogs In A Storm And Finds Them The Next Day Nearly Frozen
Thanks to Billy's grandfather, Old Dan and Little Ann nearly freeze trying to win a "coon hunting" competition. We see a little boy and his two dogs forced to hunt for raccoons in a thunderstorm, only for Billy to become separated from his hounds. The hunting competition turns into a nightmare for Billy, who desperately tries to find his dogs before they perish in the harsh weather conditions.
While the dogs survive - for the time being - it's one of the more upsetting moments in the story, and also highlights an ongoing theme in both the book and film of "Grandpa" inadvertently creating trouble for his innocent grandson.
A Young Kid Battles A Mountain Lion With An Ax
In the context of Where the Red Fern Grows, Billy is just a 10-year-old boy who raised enough money to get himself two loyal hunting dogs. Unfortunately, mountain lions don't care how old you are, and at one point, Billy finds himself face-to-face with one of these fierce cats.
Old Dan steps in to save Billy from being taken down by the cougar, but he is no match for the wild animal. Billy then decides to face off with the mountain lion using nothing but an old hatchet, teaching young readers that love and an ax just might save you from being mauled.
Rubin Falls On An Ax And Suffers A Horrible Fate
We know from the beginning of the movie that the Pritchard family is no good. When they buy the hound Billy wants, Grandpa laments not being able to get the dog for his grandson, suspecting it will become just as mean as the Pritchards.
When Billy takes Old Dan and Little Ann out to hunt for the "ghost coon," the Pritchard boys, Rubin and Randy, show up with their dog to cause some trouble. At one point, they go as far as saying they'll bash Billy's skull in. Lighthearted fun, right?
Things take a turn when Rubin takes Billy's ax, and Billy trips Rubin in an attempt to stop him from running off. Billy falls on the ax, and in both the book and the film, his final moments are gruesomely elaborate. The scene is a haunting riff on the old warnings against running with scissors or shooting your eye out. In this case, the town bully mutilates himself in a tragic incident, scarring any child required to read this novel in school by teaching them that they, too, are vulnerable.
The Story Uses The Attachment Between Children And Pets To Teach Us About Death
Right from the start, we know something is missing from Billy's life, and that something is dogs. Billy works hard to get the money to buy his own hunting hounds, and he shows a greater attachment to Old Dan and Little Ann than he does to anyone in his family.
There are several close calls that threaten to take one or both of Billy's dogs away from him throughout the story, but they're always reunited, making their bond stronger. Billy does, however, have to learn how to grieve when both hounds perish unexpectedly and in the most horrific way possible.
Most of us learn this lesson eventually, but Where the Red Fern Grows uses the innocence of the two dogs and Billy's bond with them to teach children very early on what it means to permanently lose someone you love.