Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook and all around reading advocate, felt as a boy that ALL books were GIRL books and he wasn’t interested in them. The book that changed his mind was Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. Rawls was a great American storyteller and his book is one of the great dog books. Trelease has continued in his admiration and provides a wonderful tribute page to Rawls on his website. Be sure to listen to the news story and consider purchasing the CD recording of Rawls’s speech. Many people told Trelease that it was the best speech they ever heard and while I can’t go so far as that, it is an amazing speech about dreams, reading, commitment, and gratitude. I wish now I had bought a copy of the full speech earlier.
The Life of Wilson Rawls
The Marshfield WI public library pointed out this website when I queried them about Rawls who had died in their town (at a regional medical center) and it is the best description of his life I’ve found online.
If you had set out to create the perfect background for a writer, you’d probably pick absolutely everything the opposite of what Rawls had. Woodrow Wilson Rawls was born in Scraper, Oklamoa in 1913 and named after the sitting U.S. President. (He would publish under Wilson Rawls, but was always known as Woody to his friends.) While he had a loving family, he was born poor in hill country, where schooling was almost non-existent and books were rare, but when he was given a copy of Call of the Wild by Jack London Rawls discovered reading. He got it in his mind that he wanted to write a book like that for boys like him. That determination kept him writing for years as he bummed around the country always looking for a steady job during the Great Depression. A chance encounter with a wealthy Texan (I think he was hinting he thought it might have been LBJ, but he wasn’t sure and didn’t say so) finally landed him that steady job and time to write and so he did on whatever he could, even brown paper grocery bags split in half. His spelling was awful and his grammar was worse and he didn’t know anything about punctuation, so he was ashamed to show anyone those stories. He might have gone on like that his whole life writing away feverishly with never sharing a word, but then he met Sophie Styczinski , fell in love and got married. Before the ceremony, he burned all five novels he’d written and hundreds of short stories, etc. because he wanted to quit writing and he was so embarrassed by it he didn’t want his new wife to know. But storytelling was in his soul and he didn’t make it three months until he had to tell his wife about the stories and his writing. She told him she made enough money in her job that he should quit his day job and try writing. She typed for him, edited for him, and pushed him to try for publication. In the author blurb in the April 1, 1961 issue of the Saturday Evening Post this is the final paragraph:
Author Rawls gives his wife [Sophie], an Atomic Energy Commission budget analyst, full credit for his novel. She served as his typist and editor and, in the year it took to complete the [rewritten] manuscript for publication, she bought the groceries, paid the rent, “and growled at neighbors who gossiped about her lazy husband.”
Eventually the story came out serialized in the Saturday Evening Post (SEP) starting with March 18, 1961 issue as The Hounds of Youth. SEP received more mail for that story than any other they published that year. (Note: They republished it as a serial under the same name in 1986.) The editor who had championed the book took it to Doubleday who published it in a lengthened form in 1962, but let it languish for 6 years without any publicity while the publisher tried to sell it as an adult book. It was when a publisher got Rawls a speaking engagement at a teacher/librarian conference that sales took off and the book sales suddenly jumped.
In the introduction to the speech, Trelease talks about the movie made about the book in 1973 (see note below) and how the Rawls attended the world premier in Salt Lake City, Utah and stayed past Midnight signing autographs and Vicki Palmquist on the Children’s Literature website I linked to above describes his involvement with the film “In 1973, the book was made into a movie. The production crew rebuilt Rawls’ childhood home in the Ozarks, and asked the Rawls to visit the set. Rawls said, ‘I stayed for ten days and relived my youth. It was wonderful.'” In his speech Rawls says that during his trip back he also revisited the little store that used to belong to his grandparents that appears in the book.
Rawls wrote his second book The Summer of the Monkeys and began a steady campaign of speaking at schools, to professional organizations, etc. After it came out he started a third (another one of those five that he’d burned), but it was never finished. Rawls and his wife had moved to Cornell, Wisconsin after her retirement and they lived there from 1975-1984. Rawls was hospitalized at a regional medical center in Marshfield, Wisconsin and it was there that Rawls passed away from cancer December 16, 1984. Findagrave informs us he was cremated and location of his remains unknown.
More Information Oklahoma
Once Rawls was brought to the front of my mind, I did what any reference librarian would do, I set out to see what I could find on him. Amazingly there wasn’t much. There doesn’t seem to be a biography, even though his story is clearly crying for one and he and his two books, as popular and influential as they are, seem not to create much interest online. So here is what I found.
Today the Rawls archive is held by the Cherokee Heritage Center (he was a member of the tribe through his mother), it is maintained in paper form only without even an online finding aid:
Read a short biography of Rawls from the Oklahoma Historical Society:
Tahlequah Public Library of Tahlequah, Oklahoma was named a National Literary Landmark for the role it played in inspiring Rawls to write as a boy (Sadly their own website makes no reference to this):
As part of the National Literary Landmark status they were supposed to put a digital version of the booklet they produced about him online. When I wrote the first draft of this months ago, I reached out to every contact I could find to see if it had materialized and if they had any of the paper copies left. At that time, three years after they were supposed to put it up, they assured me it would be up “within two weeks.” I contacted them again before I published this and was informed it’s been delayed as they are creating a separate website for National Literary Landmark winners from Oklahoma to post it. If I get word it’s been put up, I’ll post again.
Tahlequah also holds an annual Red Fern Festival in Rawls’s honor:
More Information Idaho
As I said the Tahlequah Public Library which was named a landmark in his name, seems to be doing its best to ignore Rawls. On the other hand Idaho Falls, Idaho where Rawls was living when he wrote the book has a major tribute to him on their website. They didn’t even know for many years that Rawls was living there when he wrote Where the Red Fern Grows, but once they discovered it they’ve made up for lost time on all fronts from collecting and hosting research information to raise a statue in his honor. I now have it on my Life Goals list to visit that statue and that library. Anyone who is interested in Rawls needs to check out the Idaho Falls Library.
I want to admit that while I had long had that recording of Rawls in my consideration file, it probably wouldn’t have suddenly jumped to the top of my list. It did because my nephew was assigned to read Where the Red Ferns Grows in school and I wanted to support his interest in it so I set out on this search. I’m very glad I did. It didn’t make me want to read Where the Red Fern Grows again (because I can’t even make it through the prologue where the young boy in the story is now a grown man without crying), but I discovered that not only could I still tell you all about that story, but my brother, who despite a lot of trying on my part was never really a pleasure reader, also could still you all about the book a good two decades after he read it. That must mean something. I also discovered that I’m sorry I never got the chance to meet Wilson Rawls because I think I would have liked him a lot. Listening to him tell the story of his life I decided he was someone who Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder would have really liked and that their daughter Rose Wilder Lane would have looked down on, which is all the endorsement I need. I also learned about the Idaho Falls Public Library who is doing amazing things to support him and appears to be a bright shining light of an example to public libraries everywhere in their role as local history archive. So I’m very pleased to share with you what I’ve learned about Rawls.
NOTE: In addition to the movie described above that was made 1973 with Rawls’s cooperation and input, a straight to video sequel (Where the Red Fern Grows 2) was made when such things were hot in 1992 and Disney Studios remade the original in 2003. The 1973 version is currently available for free as a digital download for people with an Amazon Prime account and really cheap for those without one both as a DVD and a download. I watched this version with my nephew and was bawling well before the end.
UPDATE 2015: After watching the movie, I came back and added a little more information and while I was at it made a couple of edits for clarity.
Sarah S. Uthoff is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales fighting to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation. Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, and find her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and Academia.edu. She is currently acting President of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association. Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.