Friday, December 13, 2013

Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

I've been working on this post for quite some time now (erm, two months). I keep hesitating to actually post it because I have never heard a single person criticize Where the Red Fern Grows. And I'm about to. Hold onto your hats.

Where the Red Fern Grows is a classic American story--but I hope you won't throw stones at me when I say I hope it's not considered classic American writing.

It's pretty obvious that Wilson Rawls didn't have tons of formal training when it came to fiction writing. That doesn't necessarily mean his book is bad. It's fun, sweet, and emotionally provoking (how many of us have cried at the end?). It explores the timeless theme of humanity's relationship with nature and animals. It's a perfect read-aloud and it's easily relatable.

That said, there were some annoying and even laughable flaws in the writing. I believe that a true classic has both the elements of a good story and a beautiful way of telling it. In that way, this book was more of a fun story than a classic for me (emphasis on for me).



I debated whether I even wanted to bring this up, because it feels like a snobby, elitist way to look at literature. I'm not trying to say this book isn't worth reading or that it isn't good. This book is instantly lovable with children and adults alike, and Rawls was certainly masterful at conveying emotion. I'm not trying to condemn the book. However, I do think that the writing is worth critiquing, if only because this book is lauded far and wide (well, far and wide within the United States). It almost feels heretical to say that there's anything wrong with it because everyone loves it so much.

However, this book felt more like a campfire story than a real novel. I think it really brings to life the American spirit--as long as you don't look at it aesthetically. I think it has more to do with the culture than with any kind of literary merit.

What do you think?

16 comments:

  1. I have actually never read it. I must be the only librarian in America who hasn't. Oh dear.

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    1. My goodness, Jean! You have got to read this book. It is a very good story. Very enjoyable.

      Emily, I think you are probably correct. It isn't the best writing style, and that's why I only considered it to be a great children's story, although adults are capable of relating to it. It's not up there with powerful works of great classics, but it should be remembered as an important work of children's literature b/c of it's story.

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    2. Ruth, I agree.

      Jean, you could probably read this book in a day, if you decide to. I would be interested to see what you think of it, as a person who didn't grow up with it (like many of us did).

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  2. I feel the same way about Old Yeller -- it's enjoyable, it's poignant, but it's not "great literature" or anything. But I must admit it's been years since I read either one.

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    1. I've never read Old Yeller; I think I might have watched part of the movie as a kid, haha. Good to know.

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  3. I know what you mean, Emily. There are Classics, and then there are classics. I actually have two Goodreads shelves for classics: "classics" and "minor-classics". This book would have probably been shelved on the second one.

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    1. That's a great distinction!

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    2. I think some books are "popular classics"--they attain the status because they are so popularly beloved, not because they are such great literature. Pilgrim's Progress, for example.

      I put a hold on Where the Red Fern Grows and will read it in January for the Children's Lit Event, OK? You can have the grown-up perspective. :) I grew up in a home filled with *British* children's classics but not a lot of American ones. Thus my head is full of E. Nesbit and Eleanor Farjeon instead of Summer of the Monkeys, Old Yeller, or almost any other American classic. Except Beverly Cleary, Robert McCloskey, and Sidney Taylor--we read all of those!

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    3. That's definitely the case for this one. Looking forward to your thoughts, Jean!

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  4. It's fun to see the brilliance in a book, and to bring to light its flaws too! Yeah, I liked the book as a kid, but I'm not that emotionally attached. So what were the author's "laughable mistakes," Emily?

    You remember when I wrote that pen&paper comic called "Square and Circle?" I can look back and see my biggest mistake: dramatic changes for the characters must not be too much a surprise to the readers. They need to be made a big deal beforehand, during, and after. (Buildup, foreshadowing, exploration of emotional reaction, etc.) I remember you getting upset that I, on a whim, gave arms and legs to Circle (who was a cute little blob guy). I'll always remember that. I was even planning to take them off later, but how would the readers have known?

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    1. Hee hee, I don't remember that particular criticism of it, but I remember the comic.

      The main flaws I was considering here were on a sentence level (I thought the story itself was nicely constructed and besides, it's harder to criticize novels on a global level with and this postmodern universal acceptance in the world these days--ha, ha). So, it might have been something like a run-on sentence, or overused cliches, or the constant repetition of an awkward word or phrase. Those are the sorts of things I remember. (I wish I had some examples from the book, but I didn't highlight them or dog-ear the pages or anything.)

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  5. It's fun to see the brilliance in a book, and to bring to light its flaws too! Yeah, I liked the book as a kid, but I'm not that emotionally attached. It's been so long I've forgotten the flaws. I probably never noticed them. What did you see that was laughable, Emily? Now you've made me curious, a little.

    You remember when I wrote that pen&paper comic called "Square and Circle?" I can look back and see my big mistake: dramatic changes for the characters must not be too much a surprise to the readers. They need to be made a big deal beforehand, during, and after. (Buildup, foreshadowing, exploration of emotional reaction, etc.) I remember you getting upset that I, on a whim, gave arms and legs to Circle (who was a cute little blob guy). I'll always remember that. I was even planning to take them off later, but how would the readers have known?

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  6. Take the perspective from a kid, honestly they won't see the difference between a ''good'' classic or a non classic. All the adults commenting have probably read this as a kid, i honestly don't think it matters what he did wrong, in the eyes of a young child this book is flawless!

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  7. I've read Where the Red Fern Grows a couple of times -- as a child and as an adult. You've got me thinking about what makes a book a classic. Is it the writing and sentence construction. Is it theme? Is it flawlessness? Is it just storytelling? Boy, I'm hardly a judge. But one thing that often seems to stand out is a story that has the ability to mark an era. Fern seems to hit that note. It continues to entertain, continues to make young-adult reader lists, continues to take the reader back into the past -- helping us better understand that time in history. I guess for the depression-era, The Grapes of Wrath is the kind of book the earns the term classic from one of our best writers. But certainly, by it's long-lasting popularity, by it's wonderful story, Where a Red Fern Grows has a earned a pretty high spot in great American literature.

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    1. Good points. As an English major, I'm constantly asking those questions about what makes a book a classic. It's easy to say that a book becomes a classic simply by being much-loved, but then that would eliminate books that are frequently hated or misunderstood, like Joyce's Ulysses, Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, or Richardson's Clarissa. Similarly, there are many books that were quite reminiscent of their own time, yet they haven't survived simply because of that fact--they were confined to a particular time period; they couldn't survive beyond that. I do think Red Fern has important themes that transcend its time period, while still representing its own time, which could well brand it as a classic--and does with so many people. However (and maybe I'm too critical), that's not enough for me to be a classic. A good book, yes, but not really a classic--for the reasons in my post. But I respect its general status in American literature. Thanks for commenting!

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