Where the Red Fern Grows is a 1961 children's novel by Wilson Rawls, about a boy named Billy Coleman and the adventures he has with his two coonhound dogs, Old Dan and Little Ann, in the Ozarks of Oklahoma during the 1930s. Billy spends two years earning enough money in order to buy the puppies. After that, he trains them to hunt raccoons, with Old Dan displaying strength and Little Ann displaying intelligence. Over time they become known as the best coonhounds in the area.
Not long after earning local fame, two boys named Rubin and Rainie, of the Pritchard family, challenge Billy to a raccoon hunting contest. They say that no hound could ever chase the "ghost raccoon," a raccoon that lives near the Pritchard's home. Billy tries to ignore the challenge, but the Pritchards are mean, and start to talk about Billy's grandfather. His grandfather starts getting furious and tells Billy to accept the challenge so that Old Dan and Little Ann can chase it. After a few hours of hunting and going through the ghost raccoon's tricks, Little Ann chases the raccoon. When Billy does not want to kill it, starting to gain respect for the animal, Rubin and Rainie get angry, and at that time the Pritchards' blue tick coonhound comes up and challenges Old Dan. Rubin tells Billy, saying that his dog will easily beat Old Dan, then, Little Ann joins to protect Old Dan and the blue tick coonhound loses quickly. Rubin worries for his dog's life, and grabs Billy's axe and runs toward Old Dan and Little Ann, trying to kill them. Rubin then trips, falling on the axe and dying due to his injuries.
A few weeks later, Billy's grandfather enters him into a championship raccoon hunt, putting Billy against experienced hunters and the finest hounds in all the country. Before the hunt started, Billy enters Little Ann into a contest for the best-looking hound, where she wins and is given the silver cup. On the fourth night of the hunt, Old Dan and Little Ann chase three coons, making it to the final round. The sixth night, the dogs chase one raccoon before a blizzard hits. Billy, his dad, grandfather, and the judge lose sight of the dogs, and when they finally find them, Billy's grandfather falls and sprains his ankle which prevents him from walking. They build a fire, and when Billy's dad chops down a tree, three coons rise. The dogs take down two of them, and chase the final raccoon to another tree. In the morning, the hunters find out the two dogs covered with ice circling the bottom of a tree. This last coon wins them the championship, and the gold cup.
One night, after the hunt, Billy and his dogs chase a mountain lion, who attacks the dogs. Old Dan is seriously wounded, but holds off the animal long enough for Billy to get the killing blow. Billy rushes his dogs home, but Old Dan's wounds are severe and he dies a few hours later. Little Ann survives the attack, but dies of a broken heart a few days later by Old Dan's grave, since she lost the will to live without him. Billy buries her next to Old Dan.
It is revealed that the family has been saving the dog's earnings from Billy's raccoon furs, as well as the dogs' winnings from the championship raccoon hunt. With that money, the family can finally afford to move to town. On the day that Billy and his family leave the farm, Billy visits his dogs' graves to say goodbye. When visiting, he sees that a large plant has grown between the two hounds, a red fern. According to an old Indian legend, only an angel can plant a red fern and wherever it grows is sacred. With this sign, Billy is finally able to recover from his loss.
The book contains examples of:
- Adaptation Dye-Job: Billy is blond in the book and the 1974 film, but the 2003 movie gives him dark brown hair.
- Adaptation Species Change: The big tree is a Sycamore in the book, but the 2003 film adaptation changes it to a Tulip Poplar.
- Agony of the Feet: A bully stomps on Billy's foot and breaks his big toenail. He grits his teeth and bears it.
- Alas, Poor Villain: Rubin was a bully and an asshole, but his death was treated with tragedy. Billy even lays flowers on his grave.
- The All-American Boy: Billy Coleman
- Alliterative Family: Rubin Pritchard and his brother Raine.
- Asshole Victim: Rubin Pritchard.
- Awesome Moment of Crowning: When Billy receives the gold
cuptrophy for winning the championship coon hunt.
- Bittersweet Ending: Billy's dogs die, one saving him and one from a broken heart and he is understandably heartbroken. When his family is moving away to the city and give the kids education, Billy goes to say goodbye to his dogs. He sees a symbolic red fern growing on their graves which puts him at peace. As an adult, he admits he wishes to adopt a country dog that comes to his doorstep for food, but Billy lets him go.
- Boke and Tsukkomi Routine: Billy's youngest sister and oldest sister have a couple of moments akin to this.
- Children Are Tender-Hearted: Billy and his younger sisters are concerned about Old Dan when he is grievously injured by a mountain lion, and they are distraught when he eventually dies of his injuries. Later, Billy is worried about Little Ann when she's too depressed over Old Dan's death to even eat. He becomes even more devastated when she dies of sadness.
- Clutching Hand Trap: The book has something similar as a way to trap raccoons. You cut a small hole in a hollow log, drive some nails around it pointing down and inward, and place something shiny at the bottom like cut-up pieces of tin can. A raccoon passing by will be attracted, reach in to grab it, and catch its fist on the nails trying to pull it out. The narrator thinks his grandfather is teasing him when he first tells him this method, because all the raccoon would have to do is let go of the tin. But the grandfather assures him that a raccoon will never willingly let go of anything shiny. (After the narrator has caught one raccoon like this and can use its skin to train his hunting dogs, his father makes him pull the nails out of all his traps, because if raccoons are that serious about their tin then they don't have a sporting chance.)
- Death by Despair: After Old Dan succumbs to his wounds, Little Ann loses the will to live, and expires on her brother's grave.
- Death by Newbery Medal: How Old Dan and Little Ann meet their maker.
- Death of a Child: After Billy's dogs Old Dan and Little Ann manage to tree the raccoon, Billy cannot bring himself to kill it. Billy tries to stop the Pritchards from killing the raccoon, leading to a fight with Rubin and the Pritchards' dog Old Blue joins. Old Dan and Little Ann attack Old Blue and drag him away from Billy. Rubin tries to scare Billy's dogs away with an axe, but trips and falls on the blade, killing himself. Billy is deeply troubled by the tragic turn of events, but does not regret his choice to spare the ghost coon.
- Death Is a Sad Thing:
- Determinator: Billy, and how. He worked for two entire years to get that $50note to buy the pups he wanted. He kept his end of the deal to his dogs after they landed a coon in the giant oak tree.
- Deus ex Machina: The titular red fern.
- Dogs Are Dumb: Old Dan is a mild example. Lampshaded by Billy when he says, "It wasn't too hard for a smart old coon to fool Old Dan."
- Inverted with Little Ann. "...but there were none that prowled the river banks that could fool my Little Ann." She's ultimately the one that wins the two coon hunts, outsmarting raccoons that have evaded every other hound sent out to find them.
- Family-Unfriendly Death: Rubin Pritchard. It was so horrifying that the more graphic parts were edited out in some reprints.
- Old Dan's death is the former. Getting disemboweled by a mountain lion. Billy even mentions that on the way home from just barely surviving it, Old Dan's entrails were dragging on the ground behind him. Ewwwwwww.
- Half-Witted Hillbilly: Invoked and subverted. The story takes place in the Oklahoma portion of the Ozarks, where the main character Billy Coleman and his family are poor, uneducated, and live in the hills. At one point, when Billy visits the next big town by himself for the first time, the city kids judge him harshly over of his dirty, impoverished appearance. When he admits that he's from "the hills" and his name just happens to be named Billy, the kids all make fun of him, chanting "Hillbilly! Hillbilly!" Of course, despite being uneducated, Billy is by no means stupid.
- Have a Gay Old Time: Billy repeatedly calls Little Ann a bitch in the literal sense. While it was a curse word at the time, the more literal meaning was more common, compared to modern day where the literal meaning is rarely used.
- Heroic BSoD: Little Ann has one after Old Dan's death. She is extremely lethargic and has to be force-fed to eat. Later, she drags herself to the foot of Old Dan's grave and dies right there.
- Billy falls victim to this when Old Dan and Little Ann both die.
- Harmful to Minors: Rubin's little brother is there when Rubin accidentally falls on his ax, impaling himself. Billy notes that the kid is more traumatized than he is.
- Heroic Dog: Old Dan dies of his injuries from fighting off a mountain lion that was attacking Billy. Little Anne survives physically, but is so brokenhearted by Old Dan's death that she dies as well.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: Rubin falls on his own ax and dies from it, after siccing his dog on Old Dan and Little Anne and then trying to intervene when the hound starts to lose.
- Karmic Death: Rubin challenges Billy to a coonhound bet and threatens to beat him up when he loses but refuses to pony up, as well as siccing his dog Old Blue on Dan and Anne. When Dan and Anne start thrashing Old Blue, Rubin runs with his ax muttering he's going to kill the dogs. Billy runs and gets there first, but then realizes why; Rubin fell on the ax blade-first, and is dying.
- Lodged Blade Removal: Deconstructed. Rubin trips and gets impaled on an ax. He begs Billy to pull it out of him, and Billy obliges. Rubin instantly dies from blood loss.
- More Deadly Than the Male: Billy personally believes this, saying that it's much rarer for a female dog to fight but when they do they fight to kill. When Old Blue and Old Dan's fight gets brutal, Little Ann comes to his defense and kills him, with Billy even having to pry her teeth from Blue's throat.
- No Name Given: Billy's sisters are only ever called "the girls," at least in the book.
- Precious Puppies: Dan and Ann are like this when Billy first gets them. They are tiny, with floppy ears, and whine affectionately while licking him. This is actually why the children try to tease his dogs while he's walking out of town with them in a gunnysack.
- Stating the Simple Solution: At the beginning, Billy's father and grandfather tell him if he wants a puppy, the neighbors have ones for free and it would be no trouble to adopt them. Billy says he doesn't want just any old dog, he wants a coonhound to catch raccoons for their pelts. Each costs twenty-five dollars for the genetics, so Billy saves up over two years.
- The Straight Will And Grace: Old Dan and Little Ann.
- Supernaturally Marked Grave: If one believes the legend.
- Sweetie Graffiti: Billy finds the names Dan and Ann carved in a heart on a tree and uses them as names for his dogs.
- Worst Aid: Rubin gets impaled with an ax when a bet with Billy goes wrong. He asks for Billy to take it out. Billy doesn't know any better and honors the request. Rubin proceeds to die from a sudden blood loss and it getting in his lungs possibly.