Book Review: Old Yeller

OLD YELLERI was reluctant to read Old Yeller by Fred Gipson to my son. I had never read it, but I knew, just from being an observant American, that it was not going to end well. My son loves books with boys in nature, especially involving animals and coming-of-age, but we had already endured Where the Red Fern Grows and Sign of the Beaver, which—even though my son loved them—took some emotional endurance. Perhaps we ought to change gears? So after a couple buffer books we dove in.

Halfway through the book, I was telling him to go find “Poor Yeller” so we could read for the night. He didn’t like that. “Mom! Quit calling him Poor Yeller!” Then I would pout, “But he is Poor Yeller. I can tell.” My son could, too. And in fact, Old Yeller is a great book for teaching foreshadowing, as it has distinctly identifiable scenes of foreshadowing and set-ups. “You see this here? See what the author just said? What is this going to mean for Old Yeller?” Poor. Yeller.

Even so, it’s a classic tale with an interesting setting and engaging characters. I didn’t have a clue, but it takes place in Texas at the turn of the last century. Travis and his family are fairly isolated pioneers and essentially farmers. His dad has to go on a cattle drive, so fourteen-year-old Travis is left in charge of the homestead, which contains his stalwart mother and a mischievous five-year-old Little Arliss. The suggestion is made that the boy needs a reliable dog to help with the many difficulties of the pioneer life, and lo and behold, one shows up, a real fireball. The story that follows is about maturity, loyalty, and sacrifice, and Travis has to grow up pretty fast.

It’s hard for me to believe that so many people like this book, just because it is so specific to a historical place and time and also so very boyish. I had the same disbelief while reading Where the Red Fern Grows. On the other hand, I accept it, because it is a great story told in a clean way. Personally, I miss description and some flowery language/acrobatics, but the sparseness and lack of nonsense might be what makes it enduring and approachable. It’s a quick read. It might be a little obvious. But I would definitely recommend it, especially if coming-of-age and nature are your thang. Just be warned: there is a rather brutal scene (though very brief) that my son found difficult, even though it was not totally out of the blue. Not an easy read, but a classic one.

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