A popular element in many children's books and movies is the relationship between a child and his or her dog and the adventures that they embark on; all you have to do is look at the popularity of things like Old Yeller and Lassie to realize the impact stories of this nature can have. A classic children's book that is often read in American public schools is Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls, a story about a boy and two special dogs, Redbone Coonhounds. Actually, before the publication of this book and the subsequent movie release, not many people were familiar with the Redbones outside of the Southern US hunting community. This book helped spark public curiosity regarding the breed, and its popularity increased.
Rawls drew on his own childhood experiences and memories growing up in a small Oklahoma town to write the book, which was published in 1961 and made into a movie for the first time in 1974. All the action in the book revolves around the very important practice of coon (raccoon) hunting, a practice for which quite a few types of dog, called coon hounds, have been bred. The story most likely takes place during the Great Depression, in the Ozark Mountains, when coons made quite a nuisance of themselves, stealing food from farms; locals would hunt the raccoons using their coon hounds, skin them, and sell their fur to make some extra money. Some people made quite a fortune selling coon skins, and so their coon hounds became very precious assets.
Coon hounds had the essential job of tracking the clever raccoons and treeingŁthem (chasing them into a tree). Redbones have long been considered superb coon hunters, excelling at scent tracking, outsmarting the raccoons and treeing the animals. In Where the Red Fern Grows, the main character of the story, Billy, grows up in the spirit of his time and place, yearning to hunt coons. He sees an ad for two Redbone Coonhound pups, but his father cannot afford to give him the money to buy the two dogs; Billy works hard for two years and can finally afford the $50 price tag for the two dogs (nowadays, the dogs would most likely cost in the thousands!). Billy decides to name the male pup Old Dan and the female Little Ann; the trio experience adventure after adventure right from the start, bonding in an almost spiritual way. The dogs prove to be amazing coonhounds, even going beyond the expectations of those who are familiar with Redbone skills. Little Ann is even able to track the most elusive coon in Billy's area, a coon thought to disappear like a ghost, thanks to her intelligence.
The story also illustrates the loyalty and courage Redbones demonstrate to their humans and their pack. One night, the dogs battle a fierce mountain lion to protect Billy; Little Dan is so courageous that he risks his own life for his master. Little Ann was so close to Old Dan that she dies a few days later out of loneliness. Where the dogs are buried a red fern starts to grow. According to Indian legend, only an angel can plant a red fern; the red fern renders the spot sacred and never dies.