In Jackie’s blog on May 8, Beloved Books, I commented that I had never read Where the Red Fern Grows and would tackle it. I checked the book out at our library and began. The first copyright was in 1961. I was ten. I will say I was into Huckleberry Finn, pirate escapades, and such in those early years of reading.
I settle on the couch and stop at Chapter Two. Billy gets his first small steel traps. I put the book down. Later I inch back into it and skimmed along halfway through Chapter Seven. Okay, I have just about had it on using a log trick to catch a raccoon. A few days later I picked and poked through a paragraph here, there until the real raccoon hunt began with his two little new hound dogs. Chapter Eight through Nine was the agonizing effort of his first raccoon catch, and before Chapter Ten ended, I put the library receipt back in the book and laid it by the front door.
The point: Reading a book of its time, for its era, culture, and the deep wanting of a little boy to have hound dogs is a grand and deeply dutiful story. I would have received this story far better at the age of ten living in rural Midwest countryside, but not today at seventy-one far removed from country living. At around the same age of ten or eleven, I did go raccoon hunting once. Uncle Mel bought a Bluetick Coonhound at quite a price for that time. He had always had a dog, but not a true ‘hunting’ dog that was bred for this activity. Blue, yes, Blue, was quite the looker, but he was goofier often times and more lovable all the time than being on alert. Uncle Mel took his oldest son, Leslie, and daughter, Sandy, who was my age, and I out into the thick woods well after supper one night. We all hopped out of the truck and off we went through tall brush, grass, brambles, and trees. My uncle broke the path while Blue and us three were eager to follow. We lifted the dog over any fence we came across. Not long into this search, Blue treed a raccoon, high up, little black shiny eyes looking down.
I recall amidst the noise and excitement of the barking and baying I said something or other, like, you’re not going to hurt him, right? And probably made more of a fuss because I was beginning to get the picture. I know my uncle couldn’t see my face because of being so dark but perhaps heard something in my tone. He turned and we all followed. Blue stayed behind for a moment until he discovered we were all leaving and happily bounded after us.
A few years later in 1968 Leslie found a young orphaned baby male raccoon and brought him to the house to take care of him. He named him Rocky after the then-released Beetles song. Rocky Raccoon was a case. He grew strong, nosey, agile, and part of the big family. He was everywhere, anytime day or night. When I spent the night with my cousins, and it was often, I woke up in the middle of the night to a gentle head massage and miscellaneous rearrangements to my hair. He loved the scuffling in long hair, or his nose around my ears, and pawing to get between the blankets. He jauntily went from bed to bed to activate his many pranks.
The day came when Rocky grew into his instincts to leave home and find a mate. Rocky was getting restless, a bit less friendly, and not so content. Leslie and Rocky left one afternoon walking across the backfield toward the old one-room schoolhouse known as Dexter which was surrounded by thick woods. Leslie came back that evening, well after dark. It was a sad week at the house for all of us.
(My dad teasing Rocky with his coffee cup)
Oddly enough, about two years later, Leslie was out in the yard working on one of his dad’s tractors. He heard a type of chittering noise in the alfalfa field beyond the shed. He walked quietly toward the fence and the noise increased to a high-pitch squeal. A large raccoon reared up on its hind legs when he saw Leslie. He chittered, looked back, forward, and lowered himself. Leslie noticed another raccoon and two little ones behind, hiding. Leslie spoke to Rocky as if he never had been gone. After a few minutes, Rocky turned and led his family into the thickness of the alfalfa making their way back home toward the woods behind the old schoolhouse. I think Leslie stood at the fence for a long time.
Although this home has been empty for many years, falling in so to speak, it is still owned by some of the family. I would like to think that somewhere out back in those woods, Rocky’s relatives live on.
So back to our Where the Red Fern Grows and all others, my decree upon reading classics of choice varies from time to time, visiting extraordinary storytelling from an author’s imagination along with perhaps experience threaded within its pages. I respect each of these titles throughout our history that capture and hold in a capsule a place in time and to be carefully placed on our bookshelves. With absolutely no disrespect, Red Fern is back at the library safely tucked upon a shelf.