“I looked to Mama for help. Her face was as white as the bark on a sycamore tree and the hurt in her eyes tore at my heart.”
In elementary school my class read this book and I remember absolutely loving it. But I couldn’t tell you what happened other than it was sad and there were dogs involved.
Re-reading it now, I was initially a little surprised 8- or 9-year-old me was so enamoured with it. The real story starts off, “I suppose there’s a time in practically every young boy’s life when he’s affected by that wonderful disease of puppy love…the kind that has four small feet and a wiggly tail, and sharp little teeth that can gnaw on a boy’s finger.”
I didn’t grow up begging my parents for a dog, though there was the great cat vs. bunny debate of ’98 (the cat won). I’ve never really loved animal stories, unless the animals are basically people – Berenstain Bears, Aslan, Great Mouse Detective, etc. I like animals in real life. My parents didn’t get that rascal above until I moved out but I still have a cat (below). She’s pretty much a dog and greets me at the door every time I come home. The point is, I was surprised this hooked me.
I’m not actually sure when this is set because Billy and his family live out in the Ozark mountains and still travel places by buggy, but they’re a little behind the times. (At one point Billy goes into Tahlequah, currently home to about 15,000: “I had never seen such a big town and so many people. There was store after store, some of them two stories high.”) A good guess is probably the 1920s, because generally Billy’s life resembles that of author Wilson Rawls, who was born in 1913 and grew up on a farm in the Ozarks.
The beginning details Billy’s begging and prayers and work saving money to buy two hounds for hunting “ringtails”. Much of what follows is sort of a series of vignettes about their adventures that seemingly peak when he enters a coon hunting competition. Both people and pups end up injured and frozen and ultimately successful, but the real emotional climax comes after. Fortunately I arrived at my subway stop just as I reached that part so I was spared from sobbing on the train, and cried in bed instead.
I cry in everything. It’s embarrassingly frequent. In that respect I’m a little like Billy who cried about every other page in the book – because he had worried his mom, because his Grandpa played a joke on him, for more traumatic reasons like watching a guy die from an axe wound. I feel like it’s too rare to have male characters shed a tear, and I admired that Billy was both courageous and emotional.
For me, crying is most often brought on not by sad events as much as hopeful ones. Even fictional moments that show the beauty of love between friends, family and strangers give me hope for humanity, and a bucketful of tears – the airport scene at the end of Love Actually, the dress Ann made Leslie for her Parks and Rec wedding, Harry telling Rufus Scrimgeour that Dumbledore will only be gone from Hogwarts when none there are loyal to him.
At one point a fellow hunter says, “You can read every day where a dog saved the life of a drowning child, or lay down his life for his master. Some people call this loyalty. I don’t. I may be wrong but I call it love—the deepest kind of love…It’s a shame that people all over the world can’t have that kind of love in their hearts.” He goes on to say there would be no war, murder, greed or selfishness and he’s right. It is a shame. But there are a lot of people in the world that do love like that – I don’t only find such heartwarming stories in fiction. For starters, there’s this guy and these people and this group of women.
So in the end I could see why the book gripped me so strongly, even though I forgot basically the whole story. It wasn’t Billy’s attachment to his dogs, or their attachment to each other that had me in tears, though that was heartbreaking and touching as well. It was how much Billy’s sadness broke his family’s hearts, because of how much they loved him.
On the flip side, I’m not surprised I blocked the story from my mind because it was largely tales of tearing throats and skinning coons, before ending with a lot of gurgling blood and spilling entrails.