This book has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
The story opens with Billy Colman, a grown man, coming upon a vicious dog fight between a Redbone Coonhound and neighborhood street dogs. Billy scares the other dogs away and takes the hound home to help it recover. When the dog is on its feet again and noticeably restless, Billy realizes that the dog has a home somewhere and that he must set it free so it can find its way back. As the dog trots off, it turns and appears thankful to Billy for his kindness. The experience releases a flood of memories from Billy's boyhood past.
Ten-year-old Billy lives on a farm in the Ozark Mountains with his parents and three younger sisters. He desperately wants two good coonhounds, but his family is poor and cannot afford them. One day Billy finds an advertisement offering a pair of Redbone Coonhounds in Kentucky for $25 each. Billy decides to work to earn the money. For two years, he works hard, selling food, supplies and bait to fishermen, and manages to save $50. His grandfather contacts the dog kennel and discovers that the two puppies will now cost only $40. Billy gives the money to his grandfather, who orders the dogs. The puppies are sent to the town depot.
Billy sneaks out of his home one night to walk to town to pick up his new pups. With the extra money he has saved, he buys presents for his family. While in town, other children pick a fight with him, but Billy stands up for himself and is helped by the town's kind marshal.
On his way home, Billy and his two puppies seek shelter in a cave. As Billy builds a fire, they hear a mountain lion screaming from far away, and the pups run to the entrance to howl into the darkness. Billy decides to name his dogs Old Dan and Little Ann. Old Dan has the brawn and the bravery, while Little Ann is intelligent.
With his grandfather's help, Billy traps a raccoon and uses the skin to teach his new pups how to track a raccoon. Both dogs prove to be natural hunters. They are fiercely loyal to each other and to Billy. As the hunting season begins, Billy makes a promise to his dogs: If they get a raccoon up a tree, he will do the rest. The dogs chase their first raccoon into one of the largest trees in the woods, and Billy, not wanting to disappoint his dogs, undertakes the job of cutting down the tree, a Herculean task that takes him a few days of chopping. When he is most of the way through the tree, Billy feels he can't continue, and he prays for the strength to finish the job. A wind starts to blow, and the tree comes crashing down. The eager dogs take the raccoon down.
Billy and his dogs hunt every night, and the team soon grows to be among the best hunters in the area. Two local boys named Rubin and Rainie Pritchard dare Billy into a raccoon-hunting bet. Billy wants to ignore the dare, but the Pritchard boys only taunt Billy and his grandfather. Billy's grandfather grows frustrated with the Pritchards and says that Billy and his dogs will take the bet. After several days of tracking the elusive raccoon, Little Ann finally chases it down. The animal's tricks have earned Billy's respect, and he doesn't want to kill the coon. Rubin and Rainie become angry with Billy and allow their dog, a blue tick hound, to pick a fight with Old Dan. Billy's dogs stand their ground against the blue tick hound, and he slinks away. Furious, Rubin Pritchard picks up Billy's ax to go after Old Dan. Billy trips the Pritchard boy, and he falls onto the blade and dies. Billy feels awful about the incident, and he is unable to hunt for many days. He is haunted by nightmares of the tragedy.
Time passes, and Billy's grandfather shows him an advertisement for an upcoming coon-hunting contest. Grandpa has been counting the coonskins that Billy has brought into the store, and he is confidant that Old Dan and Little Dan can win the championship and the $300 prize money. Excited for the opportunity, Billy and his dogs, along with his grandfather and father, pack up their gear and travel to the contest. Before the main hunting event, Little Ann wins first place in a hunting dog "beauty" contest.
The hunt begins and Billy's dogs gradually make it to the final round. A terrible storm lashes the mountain on the last day of the hunt, and Billy's team gets separated. His grandpa breaks his ankle, and Billy begins to despair, believing his beloved dogs are dead. The next morning, several other hunters from the contest track down Billy and his team. The dogs have been nearly frozen to death from the ice storm, and Billy helps them recover by warming them next to a fire. Billy is declared the winner of the championship and is given a gold cup as well as the $300 prize money.
Weeks later, Billy is hunting with his dogs on the trail of what they think is a coon. But the animal turns out to be a mountain lion. Old Dan and Little Ann get into a vicious fight with the creature. The lion tears at the dogs, especially Old Dan, who gives his life to save Billy from the attacking lion. Billy fights his way to his feet and finally kills the lion with his ax. Soon after, Little Ann also dies, as she no longer has the desire to live without her companion. Billy grieves the loss of his beloved hounds and dutifully buries them on a hillside near the family's farm.
The following year, Billy's family prepares to move into town, where the children can get a good education. As they are leaving, Billy visits his dogs' gravesite to say a final goodbye. He is surprised to see a tall red fern growing between the graves, and he remembers an old Indian story about how red ferns are supposedly planted by angels. Once planted, the ferns live forever. Billy feels a new peace about the death of his dogs, and he leaves to join his family.
God exists and seems to answer prayers. Billy often prays, believing that God is on his side and wants to protect his dogs. His faith is shaken when his dogs die. Christian virtues such as faithfulness, patience and courage are portrayed in a very positive light.
Other Belief Systems
There is a reference to Indian legends with a mystic view of nature.
There are hints of anger and muttered curses, though no explicit words are used. There is one usage of b--ch, the correct word for a female dog.
Several instances of graphic animal violence on hunts and in fights, and one gruesome fight between dogs and a mountain lion are portrayed. Bullies pick fights with Billy. A boy dies when he falls on an ax.
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Readability Age Range
8 to 12
Yearling Books, a division of Random House
Over the last 50 years, this story has won many regional awards.