One of the best things about elementary school for me was the chance to order Scholastic books. I was always allowed to order a couple of titles each time that little flyer was sent home. My parents said, “We’ll support your good habits but not your bad ones,” and reading was thankfully considered one of my good habits. What you see here is my Scholastic copy of Old Yeller that I’ve owned for more than forty years.
My favorite part of the elementary school day was when our teacher read aloud to us. In early grades I remember Make Way for Ducklings and The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. When we were a little older, we heard A Wrinkle in Time, Little House on the Prairie, and the book that became “my book,” Fred Gipson’s Old Yeller.
You might know that this is the story of a frontier boy and the trouble-making dog he grows to love. I read Old Yeller over and over and bragged to anyone who would listen that I’d gone through it more than twenty times. I read other dog books too: Jim Kjelgaards’s Big Red, Irish Red, and Outlaw Red; The Greyhound by Helen Griffiths; and Fred Gipson’s other books, Savage Sam and Hound Dog Man. But nothing got in my head the way Old Yeller did.
The language captured me first, followed by the story. For the sheer joy of it, go ahead and read aloud this passage where our eponymous dog protagonist is first described: “He was a big, ugly, slick-haired yeller dog. One short ear had been chewed clear off and his tail had been bobbed so close to his rump that there was hardly stub enough left to wag. But the most noticeable thing to me about him was how thin and starved looking he was, all but for his belly. His belly was swelled up as tight and round as a pumpkin.” Any description including the words ugly, rump, stub, belly, and swelled is bound to catch a boy’s attention.
Also enthralling to me were the scenes of animal violence in Old Yeller. How could I resist a story that includes this warning about javelina hogs?: “Make a bad shot and wound one so that he went to squealing, and you had the whole bunch after you, ready to eat you alive.” I’m not even sure I’d know a javelina hog if I saw one, but I am sure I never want to mess with such a creature because of what I read back then in Old Yeller. Or how about the scene where the narrator Travis is trampled by two enraged bulls?: “I sure thought I was a goner. The roaring of the bulls was right in my ears. The hot, reeking scent of their blood was in my nose. The bone-crushing weight of their hoofs was stomping all around and over me, churning up such a fog of dust that I couldn’t see a thing.” Throughout Old Yeller we see all manner of animals, frequently in inter-species combat, or battling Travis or his brother Arliss, and Old Yeller usually inserts himself into the fray and saves the day one way or another.
The tension of these elemental frontier conflicts is periodically offset by Travis’s sense of humor. For example, he describes his brother Little Arliss as “a screamer by nature. He’d scream when he was happy and scream when he was mad and a lot of times he’d scream just to hear himself make noise.”
Old Yeller is, of course, most famous for its ending, but I believe that’s more due to the movie than the book. This over-wrought screen moment was even satirized on Friends when Phoebe is startled by seeing the movie’s denouement for the first time after being told as a child that it ended happily.
In the book, Old Yeller’s demise is handled quickly in one understated sentence: “I stuck the muzzle of the gun against his head and pulled the trigger.” Oh, come on. Is it really a spoiler when anyone who picks up a dog book should know that it will end badly for the dog? That’s part of the genre. Old Yeller’s ending is an iconic moment in animal stories and, I believe, a valuable and important example of what Kelly Gallagher calls “imaginative rehearsal.” The power of that moment helped prepare me and I’m sure countless others to make hard decisions at personal expense and for the greater good of a community.
Why did Fred Gipson’s Old Yeller speak to me? Maybe because young readers need to see some version of themselves in the books they read. Although I did not have a dog of my own, reading Old Yeller showed me an older brother working hard and taking on responsibility, learning to choose his battles, and a courageous dog companion who doesn’t let unfair odds get in the way of tackling opponents or problems. Those were good lessons that I probably could not have articulated in elementary school but that are clear to me now.
When a boy learns his lessons from a “big, ugly, slick-haired yeller dog,” they tend to stick with him. If you haven’t read Old Yeller, or if it’s been a while, give that dog a chance. He’ll grow on you.
Re-posted from Nerdy Book Club