Where the Red Fern Grows, Woodrow Wilson Rawls’s touching tale of a boy and his loyal hounds, has been captivating audiences since its publication in 1961. Even if you loved the book when you read it in school, you may not know about Rawls’ background and inspirations for this classic coming-of-age tale.
1. Rawls was an unlikely bestselling author.
“Woody” Rawls was born in Oklahoma’s Ozark Mountains in 1913. He was one of six children, and since there was no school in the area, most of the family’s education came from his mother. She taught the kids to read and write as best she could; the children would take turns reading aloud to the group from whatever books she could get. When a school finally did open nearby, Rawls and his siblings had to wade across a river to get to class, and it was only open during summer months. Rawls put in four years at this modest school and later spent a few months in high school before the Depression forced him to get a job.
2. Another man-and-dog story inspired Rawls’ entire literary career
As a young child, Rawls wasn’t too interested in reading; he referred to stories like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Chicken Little” as “girl stories”—he just couldn’t identify or connect with the mostly female protagonists. But one day, his mother brought home a book that changed his life: Jack London’s Call of the Wild. The story of a man and his dog resonated with him, and he began to dream of writing a book like it someday. He eventually shared this dream with his father, who told him, “Son, a man can do anything he sets out to do, if he doesn’t give up.”
3. The lack of education hurt Rawls’ chances at publication.
Although Rawls knew he wanted to be a writer from the time he was 9 or 10 years old, his unpolished command of spelling and punctuation doomed him in the eyes of prospective publishers. He wrote five manuscripts, including what would become Where the Red Fern Grows, but they were too rough to be published. Rawls later admitted, “The spelling was bad and I know absolutely no punctuation.”
4. Rawls burned all of his manuscripts.
Rawls eventually settled into life as a carpenter and moved to Idaho to work at a defense installation. While there, he met his wife, Sophie. Instead of admitting to Sophie that he secretly dreamed of becoming a writer, Rawls burned everything he had ever written just before they were married.
However, a few months later he confessed everything to Sophie, and she encouraged him to write again. In longhand, he replicated the story of a young boy and his hunting dogs.
5. Rawls rewrote the book in three weeks—completely from memory.
All that was left of the original manuscript were charred remains, but Rawls knew the story by heart. With his wife's support, he quit his job in order to focus all of his time and energy on the rewrite. He wrote nonstop for three weeks and absolutely refused to let anyone, even Sophie, read it until it was finished.
He handed the manuscript over to Sophie and went to town for the day while she read. Rawls was sure Sophie would hate the novel. To his surprise, she called him and gushed, “Woody, this is marvelous. Come home and work on it some more and we'll send it to a publisher."
6. The finished product showed husband-and-wife teamwork.
Since Sophie had formal education, she helped Rawls smooth out the spelling and grammar. She also suggested that he beef up the tale because she believed that it was “too short to be a novel but too long to be a short story.” Rawls set to work, and soon he had written his signature book—all 35,000 words in longhand! Sophie typed it up, and together they delved into the world of publishing.
7. It was originally published in the Saturday Evening Post.
Although the Post initially rejected Rawls’ story, it later accepted the work after the Ladies Home Journal sent it their way. (The Journal’s editors felt that it was not quite right for their magazine, but they liked it and wanted it to be seen.) In 1961 the tale was published as a three-part series titled The Hounds of Youth.
8. The book’s title was changed without Rawls’ permission.
When Doubleday picked up the novel for publication as a book, it changed the title to Where the Red Fern Grows in an attempt to market the book to adult readers. Rawls said Doubleday “broke [his] heart,” because now his children’s coming-of-age story was not even reaching children.
9. The story is loosely based on Rawls’ own childhood.
Before he settled down in Idaho, Rawls constantly wrote autobiographical fiction while traveling for work. He penned tales about the farms of the Ozark Mountains, stories that reminded him of stories from his youth. The first audience of these stories had been his own faithful boyhood companion, a bluetick coonhound.
10. Sales were slow.
Where the Red Fern Grows wasn’t an overnight success when Doubleday released it in 1961. Even several years after its publication, Rawls was still working as a carpenter, and by the mid-'60s the novel was scheduled to go out of print. Then Rawls got an invitation to speak at the Intermountain Conference on Children’s Literature in Salt Lake City. Again, Sophie saved the day. Rawls later said, “I had never spoken in public before. I woulda backed out if I could of, but my wife wouldn’t let me. I wondered what I had got myself into now.”
Rawls must have wowed the assembled teachers. After they returned home to their schools, orders for the book began pouring in from around the country, and Where the Red Fern Grows was finally a hit.
11. Rawls only published one other book.
Rawls’s second novel, Summer of Monkeys, was published in 1976 and found even quicker success than Where the Red Fern Grows—perhaps due in part to his now reputable name.
12. Rawls was perhaps most influential as a motivational speaker.
Following the success of his books, Rawls received invitations to speak at schools across America, where he told the story of his life and offered writing advice to students. Visiting over 2000 schools before he passed away in 1984, Rawls always brought a powerful visual aid:
I always take my second original manuscript of Where the Red Fern Grows to show the youngsters. I want to stress to them how important it is to learn to spell, punctuate, and mainly how important it is for them to stay in school. They always look at the manuscript in disbelief.
Rawls encouraged students to begin writing and stressed that getting one’s ideas down on paper was the first and most important step. In a letter to aspiring writers, Rawls wrote, “Do a lot of reading … Read all the books you can find on creative writing … Do not wait to start writing. You are never too young to start.”