I realize someone before me has tackled this terrible subject, but it’s been a while, and I need to focus more particularly on the film released in 1974, because as a child, I “experienced” the story on the page and the small screen simultaneously. Allow me to scare-quote that euphemistic verb, by the way, because this memory could be the worst of all from my childhood, the one that still makes me twitch with hopelessness even into early middle age.
Reading “young adult” fiction in the ‘70s and ‘80s (I don’t think they marketed it as “young adult” back then; “children’s literature,” if I recall correctly) was a perilous business. Adult authors seemed to think that precocious ten-year-olds getting into non-pictorial reading for the first time needed to be apprised of all the horrible things that could happen to an innocent person throughout life. Bridge to Terabithia (rope swing breaks, Leslie falls and drowns in a creek), Tuck Everlasting (living forever sucks, just look at the miserable toad on the road who doesn’t care if he lives or dies), The Outsiders (Johnny stabs and kills Bob, then later gets his back broken in a fire), Forever… (Michael nicknames his penis Ralph)—reading these books ensured that impending adulthood would look like atrocity footage. The Newbery Awards list was an honor roll of devastation and catastrophe.
Rawls’ novel did not win the coveted Newbery, but it taught me never to read “children’s novels” that were about dogs. Never. If you see a young boy embracing a dog on the cover of a children’s novel: run. Or light the book on fire, and then run. Because adults use the radical innocence of animals and the deep attachment children form with them as an opportunity to teach them ways in which they can “accept death.” They somehow think that the death of a pet is the shallow end of a death pool at the end of which dead parents and dead siblings and dead best friends float in ten feet of chlorinated death water. But I’m sorry to disappoint your pedantic urges, Rawls, “Old Yeller” Gipson, and the rest of you misery merchants: pets are just as intensely mourned.
Not content with spilling the intestines of one dog, Rawls pairs it with the second dog’s death. Mind you, this second pet dies of despondency after its mate’s demise! Sadness kills her! What happened to “accepting death,” Rawls? And in the world of the novel, this is considered noble devotion at work: a red fern sanctifies the sacrifice, growing between the graves, validating the second death like a bride burning in India. Yes, it is good to stop living when your mate dies, Rawls would seem to be telling us.
Now, I know this is a family website but—fuck that book. And fuck the movie made from it in 1974. Previously, a contributor discussed the death of Rubin, the boy rival who falls on the axe. In the film, I remember the close-up of Rubin’s face after the accident, a gout of blood running from his mouth, his eyes glazed in the wooded darkness. This was the moment that I learned a person could belch hot blood if they get axed in the stomach. The blood backs up and spills from the mouth. And children can die this way just as easily as adults; children, too, can rupture their organs with a sharp axe and regurgitate blood tainted with bile that originated somewhere near their kidneys. Thank you for letting my five-year-old self know! I don’t think I would have matured correctly without that nugget of wisdom.
Let’s talk about “treeing coons” for a minute, too. Aside from the dubious associations any American should make with that expression, the act of trapping a helpless raccoon in a tree, and then chopping down the entire tree in order to set your dogs on the defenseless animal, seems like extra-steps evidence of perverse sadism, all in order to get a Davy Crockett hat. Watching the film, I felt bad for the raccoon struggling to escape, running to the end of one limb after another in an animal panic, looking pathetically for a means to return to its innocent, bandit-faced life, free of Redbone Coondogs and Appalachian demon children. I have had a raccoon hiss at me on its hind legs while literally holding the lid of a metal garbage can like a post-apocalyptic shield, and I still feel this way.
I even felt bad for that tree. Again, who chops down a giant sycamore tree to catch a raccoon? Is that really the method required here? Weaken the ancient trunk enough with an axe so that some demented Old-Testament God can answer your sick prayers by sending a wind that topples it? What happened to sling shots, rifles, or let’s-just-consider-this-a-win-and-let-everything-live? Whatever happened to catch and release? I realize Billy wants to save the venerable Ghost Coon—and bully for him—but look what happens when the natural hillbilly order of Kill Everything was disrupted: a boy falls on a hatchet and dies. What does that teach us?
Making a movie from a children’s novel means letting a child five years younger experience the horrors of that book. I was a freakishly early reader (not that that helped me much in life, except to expose me to trauma much earlier than most children), but even the most illiterate kids can sit in front of a television and watch Rubin vomit blood and Little Ann collapse on the burial mound of her lifelong mate in total abject sadness.
Before I leave this subject to the carrion birds, let’s review a couple book covers that deceived us as kids, the book cover illustrations that matter so much to visually inclined children. Here’s the original dustjacket:
Ah, the halcyon days of frolicking with your best animal friends in the woods. But watch out! This is an autumnal setting! Do you know what that means, children? Of course you don’t! You are still immune to the heavy-handed symbolism of the adult world. You think this is a lovely wooded scene, but in fact it Reeks of Death.
Here’s a much later paperback edition:
Gosh, this looks thrilling, like a Hardy Boys mystery! What spooky, innocent fun this will be! I mean, sure, sometimes you notice the Hardy boys making fun of Chet for being fat now and then. A slight drop in your respect for the brothers, a nagging suspicion that they might be assholes to their friends, but otherwise safe, right? (I mean, at least until the spin-offs, when—allow my potty mouth one final f-bomb—a fucking car bomb kills Chet’s sister, of course.)