If there was a holy trinity of Anvilicious Death by Newbery Medal children's literature, it would be Bridge to Terabithia, Where the Red Fern Grows, and... this book.
Little Willy and his dog Searchlight live in Wyoming, and Little Willy's grandfather, though otherwise perfectly healthy, has come down with a bad case of losing-his-will-to-live. The reason? He owes the state $500 in taxes, and they're threatening to take away his farm. So Little Willy and Searchlight, despite having absolutely no training, decide to sign up for a sled dog race with $500 dollars as the prize money. Their main competitor is Stone Fox, a Native American man who never ever talks to white people and has never lost a race with his trusty Samoyeds. Little Willy and Searchlight place all their hopes of saving Grandpa's farm on the race!
Searchlight dies of a heart attack just feet away from the finish line. Then Stone Fox draws a new line in the snow, pulls his gun on the rest of the racers and threatens to shoot them if any of them cross this line, and allows Little Willy to carry Searchlight's body the rest of the way to the finish line.
As the description suggests, this short novel (written in 1980 by John Reynolds Gardiner) is very much one of those books. It was, however, very popular. It's been read by millions of children (and assigned reading in many schools), and had a 1987 Made-for-TV Movie adaptation. Produced by Hanna-Barbera, no less.
This book contains examples of:
- Adaptation Distillation: The Made-for-TV Movie has a few small changes. Searchlight is now named Morgan, along with her appearance completely changed, Grandpa suffers a stroke instead, Stone Fox simply tells Willy to win the race so that Searchlight/Morgan doesn't die in vain, and in a case of Adaptation Expansion, drops by Willy's house to give him a new puppy.
- Adaptational Heroism: In the movie, Stone Fox doesn’t punch Willy in the face for getting to close and trying to pet his team of Samoyeds. Willy does end up petting the beautiful dogs in the movie as Stone Fox walks in but all he does is stare him down. He also doesn’t threaten to shoot the other mushers if they dared to cross the finish line before Willy, yet ultimately they complied out of grief for the boy. He even gives him a female puppy after the loss of Searchlight/Morgan.
- Adaptational Name Change: Searchlight is called Morgan in the Made-for-TV Movie.
- Antagonist Title: The title character is The Rival.
- Bittersweet Ending: Willy does wins the money to save the farm and Grandfather gets better, but Searchlight is dead. The TV movie somewhat softens the bittersweetness even more by having Stone Fox leave Willy a new puppy for him.
- Death by Newbery Medal: Poor Searchlight. At least her death is quick and painless.
- Death by Despair: According to the town doctor Willy's grandfather is close to this, having lost the will to live when faced with the prospect of losing his farm over a hefty tax fine. Luckily, he recovers and is able to come to the race to cheer for Willy.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Everyone in the crowd is shocked by Searchlight's death, even the Jerkass tax man.
- Eye Scream: After being hit in the face for going too close to Stone Fox's dogs, one of Willy's eyes is swollen shut for the rest of the story. This is cut out in the movie.
- Instant Expert: Searchlight, despite having no training, instantly takes the lead in the sled dog race. Also despite, you know, being only one dog. She's only pulling a kid, but still...
- Justified, as they are able to take a short cut across a frozen pond that the other, heavier teams can't.
- Kid Hero: Little Willy certainly wants to be one, at least for his grandfather.
- Magical Native American: Averted. Stone Fox is a skilled racer who just happens to be Native American.
- Loners Are Freaks: Stone Fox is a very reserved man that only appears on the town for the occasional supply trade and to race. He spends most of the story as a stoic rival, but it's obvious that he eventually sees Willy as a Worthy Opponent and hands him the win because it's an immense tragedy he can relate to.
- Old Dog: Subverted by Searchlight, who was born on the same day as the ten-year-old protagonist yet is still just as reliable and energetic as a much younger dog would be. Sadly, her age catches up to her.
- Pet the Dog: Stone Fox conceding his victory to Willy. In a more literal sense, he's very caring and protective towards his sled dogs.
- Raised by Grandparents: Little Willy, at least until poor Grandfather gets sick.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: The bank manager refuses to let Willy take out his college fund early and repeatedly expresses his doubts about Willy being able to save the farm/survive on his own. He genuinely wants to help Willy, and is only doing what he thinks is best.
- The Rival: Stone Fox, again. He's not the only other competitor in the race, but he's expected to be the hardest to defeat.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Barely averted. Searchlight drops dead of a heart attack mere inches away from the finish line. If not for Stone Fox's instant decision to take pity on Willy and stop, it would have been an even drearier ending that it already was.
- Sled Dogs Through the Snow: The plot involves Willy and his dog Searchlight taking part in a sled dog race to win money to save Willy's grandfather's farm.
- The Stoic: Stone Fox.
- Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: Despite having the energy of a much younger dog, Searchlight's body is still old. And she had never been properly trained as a competitive racing dog. Her heart gives out from the immense strain.
- Would Hurt a Child: Stone Fox smacks Willy in the face when he catches the boy near his Samoyed dogs in a barn.
- You Shall Not Pass!: Pulled by Stone Fox as a Pet the Dog moment. He tells all other racers that he will kill them if they try to go past him and beat Willy at the race. Presumably they are also armed, but they don't try.
- Saving the Orphanage: "Save The Farm" sub-variant.
- You Don't Look Like You: Searchlight is described in the book as an all-black spitz looking breed with a white spot on her forehead, hence her name. In the movie she’s a brown scruffy haired mongrel and named Morgan instead.