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Study Guide: Themes from Where the Red Fern Grows

written by: Margie • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 4/5/2012

Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls contains many themes, both major and minor. The themes that occur throughout the novel are one of the reasons it has remained a “must read" in our classrooms year after year. There is much that can be learned from this book.

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    Three Main Themes

    Determination and Willpower

    From the very beginning of this book, when Billy manages to earn enough money to buy his dogs, we see determination and willpower. Remember that this book was set during the Great Depression, when money was very hard to earn. There were thousands of adults that could not provide for their families, but Billy, a ten-year-old boy, was able to raise enough fifty dollars to buy his dogs. It took sheer determination and willpower for him to earn that money.

    Billy continues to show great determination and willpower by walking all the night to get his dogs.

    Little Ann and Old Dan are simply a study in determination. They will not give up when they are on the trail of a raccoon. And Billy supports their determination with his own.He does whatever it takes (remember when he cut down the sycamore tree?) to provide for his dogs.

    You could go so far as to say that Little Ann was determined even in death. While some may look at her death as a loss of willpower, you could also look at it as determination to continue her life with Old Dan. She gave up on this world to be with him in another.

    Unconditional Love

    If you read this book and take away nothing else, know that this is a tale of unconditional love.This theme is probably the strongest of all the themes that run throughout the book.It starts when Billy sacrifices so much to just get his dogs.

    It continues through their adventures together and ends in the ultimate account of unconditional love, when Little Ann is so heartbroken from Old Dan’s death that she dies, too.

    We see unconditional love at work in Billy’s family life, as well. Papa is working incredibly hard to earn enough money to move his family to town, where they will have a chance at a better life. Mama worries constantly about Billy’s hunting, but loves him enough to live with her fears because she knows he and his hounds simply must hunt.

    Absolute Sacrifice

    Sacrifice for the good of others is another theme in Where the Red Fern Grows. We see sacrifices, small and large, throughout the story. The characters constantly help each other.Billy shares his candy with his little sisters. The hunters help Billy during the blizzard. Billy’s father allows him to hunt even though Billy could probably have helped on the farm more if he had not spent so much time hunting. Billy’s dad gives up time when he could be working to help Billy hunt. There are numerous examples in the book of sacrifice.

    The biggest sacrifice, however, and the one that most people who read this book will always remember, is the sacrifice that Old Dan made for Billy. He fought the mountain lion to save Billy’s life.In doing this, Old Dan lost his life. This is the ultimate sacrifice.

    There are more themes in Where the Red Fern Grows than these three. Can you think of others?

Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls unit.

The articles in this series cover characters, discussion questions, and themes from Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls.
  1. Study Guide for Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
  2. Study Guide: Themes from Where the Red Fern Grows
  3. Characters in Where the Red Fern Grows