Each day after lunch, I rushed back to my fourth grade classroom, where our teachers would gather all four classes together and read aloud. I cherished this time, adored Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
But Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls, captured my heart forever. This middle grade novel tells the heartbreaking story of a determined boy and the bond of love he builds with his hunting dogs, Big Dan and Little Ann.
Why did I fall in love with Where the Red Fern Grows, why does it still hold a special place in my heart, and what does it have to do with my writing? The obvious answer is that I loved dogs as a child (and still do!) and so of course a story about a boy’s love for his devoted pair of dogs appealed to me. But when I think of that book, through the years, a particular image fills my mind: a red fern growing between two graves. Although I couldn’t have articulated it at the time (or before today, actually) that red fern told me that love lives on, the spirit lives on, that even when life is tragic, it has meaning.
I’ve heard some people don’t like Where the Red Fern Grows or think it’s appropriate for children, because it’s “too sad.” Yes, it’s sad, heartbreaking, but I would argue that there is nothing more hopeful and uplifting than that red fern growing between the graves.
The meaning of the red fern resonates for me just as strongly today as it did back in fourth grade, and I’ve been reflecting on this recently. I’ve realized that many (possibly all) of my writing ideas and works-in-progress are concerned with the boundaries between life and death, and glimpses of an afterlife.
Because I believe in the power of the spirit, the power of love. I believe that we are more than just physical bodies with physical needs and desires (and this includes all living creatures—Big Dan and Little Ann—not just humans). I believe that two dogs could love a boy enough to sacrifice their lives for him and for each other, and that their love is powerful enough to transcend death and make a red fern spring up on their grave.
I write because of that belief in love and the spirit and hope. Life has meaning. And I have the audacity to hope that I can capture and express a little of that in a story that will maybe mean something to someone else. (And I hope my stories will also be exciting, fun, captivating, entertaining, and maybe a little scary and heartbreaking, just like Where the Red Fern Grows.)
I hope that one day, maybe I can plant the seed of a red fern in someone else’s heart.