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The Milk House: Wilson Rawls and the story we all know

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairy Published on 06 November 2020

I don’t have the type of memory that allows me to keep track of all the books I’ve read and what happens in them, but I do recall one of the first stories to leave an impact on me.

Like in many schools, Where the Red Fern Grows (1961) by Wilson Rawls was required fifth grade reading. Even though it was set in the Ozarks more than a thousand miles away and several generations before my time, it was one of the first novels I could relate to. About an impoverished boy and his love for his hunting dogs, it was also the first book that made me cry.

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It was only in recent years I learned what it took Wilson Rawls to write that book. That story is nearly as powerful and also worth telling.

Woodrow (Wilson) Rawls grew up poor in the Ozark mountains in Oklahoma. His mother did her best to teach him how to read and write, but she didn’t have a formal education herself. When a small schoolhouse was finally built, he and his sisters had to cross a river to get there, holding onto a rope to make sure they didn’t get washed away. The school was run by a rotation of local mothers who did their best to give the simple instruction they could.

Fortunately, his grandparents ran a store nearby, and they occasionally ordered books for the Rawls children. When Wilson’s mother read Call of the Wild (1903) to him, he immediately decided that he would write a “boy and a dog” story someday. Because they could not afford paper, Wilson would go to the river and pack down the sand along the banks. There he would use a stick to write about the things he saw and heard around him.

When the Great Depression hit, the Rawls, like many other families, packed up all their possessions and headed toward California. They made it as far as New Mexico, where their car died. Wilson’s father was fortunate enough to get work in a nearby town. However, it became apparent there were too many children to feed, so Wilson left home. For years he lived as an itinerant moving across the country, looking for work wherever he could find it and often going hungry.

No matter the circumstances, however, Wilson never stopped writing. He looked for paper bags in garbage bins outside of stores and cut the bottoms out or made strips out of boxes found near railway stations. He wrote his stories on these scraps and carried them with him wherever he went. Because he did not have a formal education, he could not spell or use punctuation. His stories did not have paragraphs, and wherever he took a breath when reading them out loud, he put a dash. Even when he was lucky enough to find a permanent job with an oil rig, he stayed in the bunks on weekends and wrote while the other men went into town. He never shared his work with them.

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Eventually, Wilson met Sophie Styczinski, whom he would later marry. At that time, he had completed five novel manuscripts that he hid away in a trunk, one of them being the children’s novel Where the Red Fern Grows (then titled The Hounds of Youth). However, because the punctuation and grammar were so bad, he knew they couldn’t be published. He never told Sophie about his dream of being a writer. In fact, before their wedding, he burned everything he wrote to make sure she never found out about his failed attempt at being a writer.

However, it happened – several months after the wedding, Wilson broke down and confessed that his biggest desire in life was to be an author. Sophie was educated herself and said she could help him with his grammatical issues. She convinced him to quit his job and write a book. He rewrote Where the Red Fern Grows entirely from memory over the course of six weeks. Sophie corrected the grammar and convinced him it needed to be longer to be published. Eventually, it made its way to the Saturday Evening Post as a serial and then to Doubleday to be debuted as a novel.

The story behind this classic book doesn’t stop there, however. Doubleday (in addition to changing the title from The Hounds of Youth to Where the Red Fern Grows) marketed it as an adult novel. As Wilson Rawls put it, it “broke his heart” to see his work not reaching the hands of the children it was meant for. Where the Red Fern Grows did not sell very well, and after six years was in danger of being put out of print and lost forever. Nonetheless, an executive at Doubleday decided to give it one last chance by organizing a talk for Wilson at a teacher’s conference to see if that could help it garner a little attention.

Although Wilson was petrified to stand up in front of the several thousand people in attendance, he found the courage for the sake of his novel. The teachers were so impressed by his speech that they went back to their respective schools and began sharing the book with their students. Eventually, by a word-of-mouth campaign, Where the Red Fern Grows became one of the most iconic pieces of classroom literature in American history.

Wilson Rawls would eventually publish one more book, Summer of the Monkeys (1976) and spend most of his later years traveling to rural schools across the country and giving a speech titled, “Dreams Can Come True.” A recording was recovered by a man named Jim Trelease, who sought to unearth the story behind Wilson Rawls’ life. Rawls’ talk was regarded as one of the most influential speeches of the time. As the title suggests, its message was simple. However, by sharing his experience of overcoming poverty, a lack of education and his own embarrassment, he empowered an entire generation of American children.

Wilson Rawls passed away in 1984 after battling cancer. There’s no doubt he would be delighted and humbled by all the school children who still read Where the Red Fern Grows.

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Ryan Dennis is the son of a former dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. He tweets at @PenOfRyanDennis.

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