Thursday, February 13, 2020

Old Yeller - Fred Gipson

The first time I read Fred Gipson’s Old Yeller, I was already thirteen or fourteen years old and “officially” too old for the book since it was aimed at 9-to-12-year-old children when it was published in 1956. That would be about right, too, since the book is only 117 pages long, and would be called a “chapter book” today. I do hope that copies of Old Yeller can still be found in elementary and middle school libraries because it tells the kind of story that kids are likely to remember for the rest of their lives - just the way I remembered it so well that this re-read held few surprises for me despite my fifty-eight year gap between readings. (I admit that the 1957 Disney movie of the same name probably had a lot to do with those clear memories, though, because the movie seems to have followed the book’s plot straight down the line.)  

Old Yeller is a coming-of-age story about Travis and his little brother Arliss, two boys left alone in the late 1860s on a small Salt Lick, Texas, farm with their mother while their father (along with most of the other men in the area) is away on a cattle drive. Fourteen-year-old Travis is going to have to grow up fast if he’s even going to come close to filling his father’s shoes, and it’s not going to be easy. It doesn’t help that “little Arliss” is the kind of free-spirited little boy who likes nothing better than to get naked and spend his time wading around in the family’s drinking water.

 When, out of nowhere, a big yeller, meat-stealing, dog shows up at the ranch and devours what was left of the family’s last slaughtered hog, it looks like Travis has another problem to contend with. But after that “big yeller dog” is noisily adopted into the family by little Arliss, he turns out to be exactly the kind of ranch dog that every boy needs by his side. Thus begins a series of encounters with bears, wild pigs, and raging bulls during which Old Yeller proves that he is willing to fight anyone and anything to keep his adopted family safe from harm.

Fred Gipson
And then, just about the time you finally catch your breath, here comes an ending that no one who has ever read Old Yeller will ever forget. Let me warn you that this is an ending that few ten-year-olds are going to get over quickly – but here’s a tip for you parents out there. Old Yeller has a sequel called Savage Sam that tells the story of one of Yeller’s pups, the little dog that came to live with Travis and Arliss near the end of Old Yeller. That will make it all better.

Bottom Line: Old Yeller may be a children’s book, but it works pretty well for adults, too, especially those who remember the book or the movie from their childhood. It is written in a straight-forward style that sometimes causes the mini-climaxes to come a little too close together for readers used to the more comfortable pacing of adult novels but, after all, that approach keeps it short enough for its target audience. This 1957 Newberry Medal nominee is, in my estimation, a five-star book for readers of all ages.

10 comments:

  1. I remember this book very well. I didn't know Savage Sam was the sequel- though I've heard of the title- will have to take a look for that one! Old Yeller is still on my shelf btw.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wow, Jeane, I'm impressed that you have a copy of Old Yeller on your shelves. Seriously impressed. I wish I had a vintage copy of that one here...may have to look for one.

      Delete
    2. Yep! Mine's not a vintage copy, a newer reprint. I miss the older illustrations- the ones I remember from the book I read as a kid.

      Delete
    3. I remember those, too. Funny what sticks in your mind sometimes.

      Delete
  2. You know, I don't know if I've ever actually read OLD YELLER. I remember the movie, although not well enough to recall the whole plot. It's one I should definitely read (or re-read). Thanks for the reminder!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I really enjoyed this re-read, Susan, and that doesn't always happen. By the way, there is also a Savage Sam movie starring the same two boys. I haven't seen that one myself, but I'm going to look around to see if it's available someplace.

      Delete
  3. I had to read Savage Same for school, but I've never read Old Yeller. I did see the old movie version of it though, the one with Fess Parker. Such a classic...but SAD!...story.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Fess Parker was everywhere in those days. I'll always remember him as Davey Crockett from that old Disney televisions series from the late fifties.

      One of the saddest book endings ever, beyond a doubt.

      Delete
  4. As a kids and still now, in my late 60's, I just can't read stories when harm comes to animals:(

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I understand that, for sure. Even though the dog's killing is completely necessary in this instance, it was hard to take it as a kid. Especially, I think in the movie version because it didn't take much imagination on my part to put myself into the boy's shoes.

      Delete