“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. Once again I’d like to face a mountain breeze and smell the wonderful scent of the redbuds, and papaws, and the dogwoods.” — Wilson Rawls
My parents first read Where the Red Fern Grows to me when I was 5. While I was, admittedly, slightly traumatized by the ending — when tears kept cropping up on day three, my mom finally made up an alternative ending where both dogs recovered and Little Anne had puppies — I also became utterly obsessed with the story, for years. I have come to realize that when a story strikes a chord in your soul like that as a child, the music never really leaves it.
I recently reread this childhood favorite for the first time in decades and found that the bewitching melody I had discovered winding through the narrative so long ago was still there. Curious as to the origination of the tale, I looked up its author, Wilson Rawls.
Not surprisingly, the setting and context of the story is autobiographical, including his shared dilemma with the protagonist, Billy, of having a desire for the impossible that “starts gnawing on his heart, and gets all mixed up in his dreams. It gets worse and worse, until finally it becomes almost unbearable.” Only in real life, it wasn’t for coonhound puppies. It was to publish a book.
Woodrow Wilson Rawls grew up in the Ozarks of Oklahoma on a plot of land apportioned to his mother as a Cherokee from the General Allotment Act. Just as in the novel, his family eked out a meager living farming that land, his grandparents owned the local store, and he had only sisters for most of his childhood. Uninterested in playing house with cornhusk dolls, Rawls spent every free moment alone, roaming the creek bottoms and woodland hills surrounding his home.
His grandparents would order occasional books for his mother to read to him and his sisters at night, and through them she taught them to read and write. In the beginning, he ruefully remembered all the selections as “girl books,” with such titles as Little Red Riding Hood. But one day The Call of the Wild arrived, and for the first time, Rawls begged his mother to keep reading when she finished the chapter for the night.
Afterward she gave it to him, and he carried it everywhere he went. He recalls taking his old bluetick coonhound, Rowdy, to the river bottoms and sitting down in front of him under a tree with the book in one hand and a stick in the other. The stick was to make sure Rowdy sat at attention and didn’t lie down while he was reading aloud to him, which he did hundreds of times.
One day while working alongside his father in the field, he asked him a question he had previously only discussed with Rowdy and that he couldn’t shake from his mind — the burning desire to write a boy and dog story like The Call of the Wild. Did his father think that he could one day write a story like that?
“Well son, I don’t know anything about how to write a book,” his father replied, “but I do believe this, that a man can do anything in life that he wants to do, if he really wants it and never gives up.” Unable to afford paper, Rawls would go down to a sandbar by the river, smooth out a large patch, and then listen intently to everything he observed, writing down the best descriptions he could in the sand with a small stick in his hand.
The Depression made an already hard life nearly unbearable, and at 18, Rawls insisted on making his own way so that he was not an added burden on his parents. His story of survival as a young adult is an incredible one that can be heard in a speech he gave many times across the country and that is recorded in five parts on YouTube.
Through it all, he kept writing and continued to add manuscripts to a locked chest he kept at his parents’ house whenever he returned home. In his mid 40s, he married, and in a fit of shame over his lack of education, he burned everything so that his wife, Sofie, would never see it. Still, the desire would not abate, and several months later he confessed his dream and its obstacles to her. Sofie replied that she could help him with grammar and punctuation, so he began rewriting his favorite narrative and completed it in three weeks.
It was rejected several times, but Sofie insisted on resubmitting it to the Saturday Evening Post, where it was finally published in three installments in 1961 as The Hounds of Youth. Doubleday picked up the popular story and published it that same year as Where the Red Fern Grows. However, it was nearly pulled out of print seven years later due to abysmal sales. What little marketing it had received was as an adult’s book, but one agent insisted on giving it another chance and was given three months to make something of it.
He booked Wilson Rawls to speak at the Intermountain Conference of Children’s Literature, where Rawls addressed more than 5,000 teachers and librarians from all over the world. The book became an instant bestseller and children’s classic; the conference also launched Rawls’ second career as a motivational speaker.
Wilson Rawls spoke at thousands of schools across the country before his death in 1984, emphasizing the importance of education, perseverance, and belief in one’s dreams. These visits with the children who had been gripped by his story gave him the true fulfillment of his dream, despite its having taken 40 years. He said his only regret was his father not living to see the realization of the desire he had first uttered to him so long ago in the fields. On Rawls’ tombstone it reads, “Dreams Can Come True.”