Friday, April 19, 2013

A Time to Read and A Time to Weep

Years ago, I was taken aback when a mother told me she could not read The Rag Coat to her children because "It has death in it." Mystified, I didn't even respond, but pondered the remark a great deal afterward. To avoid death in children's literature would be to neglect such treasures as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, Little Women and the vast host of children's classics most beloved by generations of readers. Indeed, the books that are nearest and dearest to us, I am certain, are probably those that have pierced our hearts in the tenderest places as we suffered with the characters and shared in their painful losses.

Last Monday, it fell to my lot to read the closing chapters of Where the Red Fern Grows to my youngest child. My tears were not flowing because I was surprised at the tragic death of Billy's beloved hunting dogs. Since my children are widespread in age, I have read this book five times before. As my son sniffled  unashamedly, I was weeping again because Billy's pain was mine again, and was penetrating the heart of my little boy. The loyal dogs got between Billy and a vicious mountain lion, losing their lives protecting his.

As Billy stood at the graveside of the first dog to die, reflecting on all he had gone through to earn those  dogs, to train those dogs, and the adventures they had had together, he said, "You were worth it, old friend, and a thousand times over." When the second dog died a few days later, Billy's suffering caused him to  question: "Why did they have to die? Why must I hurt so? What have I done wrong?" These are the very  same questions that have risen from the hearts of men throughout the ages. His misery turned to bitterness, as he expressed to his mother later, "I prayed for my dogs, and now look, both of them are dead," which causes his mother to shed sympathetic and helpless tears. Seeing her sadness, Billy is quick to respond, "Mama, please don't cry...I didn't mean what I said."

Later on, his father speaks to him at just the right time: "Billy," he said, "There are times in a boy's life when he has to stand up like a man. This is one of those times. I know what you're going through and how it hurts, but there's always an answer. The good Lord has a reason for everything He does..." These were comfortless words to Billy.

"Papa could see that his talk had very little effect on me. With a sorrowful look on his face, he sat down '[to supper]' and said, "Now let us give thanks for our food and for all the wonderful things God has done for us. I'll say a special prayer and ask Him to help Billy.""

But death is brutally permanent. As Billy continues to struggle with its irrevocable reality he tells his mother, "No one can help, one can bring my dogs back." True, true, Billy, but time and distance will dull the pain and, in the spring, God sends a special work of nature to gladden his heart and promise hope for his  future in the form of a rare Ozark Mountain phenomenon in the blooming of a red fern (hence the title of the book). In just such ways God, in all our lives, sows little mercies to help us bear the unbearable.

Because the death of those near and dear to us comes, never wanted, without warning. That very Monday afternoon we were to attend the funeral of a friend, the mother of my son's close friend, a library mother whose six young children are suffering the very real life experience of the deepest kind of loss. Her illness came on suddenly and her death has wounded all of us who loved her.

It's impossible to describe all the ways a life touches and impacts us, but when the loved one is gone, we feel the severing profoundly. Kim was the first mom I knew who followed Charlotte Mason's methods, explained the benefits of reading slowly, and what a reader! Many of the facts I know about the best authors and books are from her, many of the titles in our library are from her recommendations. To say that she gave the gift of loving literature to her children is an understatement. "Reading was what she did," as her husband puts it.

Three days before her death, our entire church gathered on the front lawn of her home and lifted our voices together in song, her favorite hymns of faith and trust, and the glorious choir of families and friends reached her ears through her open bedroom window. Afterward, her husband shared with Emily and I in particular that she had asked to be put on oxygen a few days before, "So that she would have enough breath to still read to her boys a little longer."
It was her daily practice. She was a mother unreservedly devoted to her children, and that devotion was borne out of a life fully dedicated to her Lord. The pain of loss for all who knew her and were blessed by her laugh, her friendship, her sympathetic spirit, cuts deep. We weep, but not without comfort or hope.

Billy's loss and battle with grief are not unknown to us, though they may yet be unknown to our children who are introduced to it through the pages of Where the Red Fern Grows. I am thankful my children have had the experience of coon hunting with Billy, though they most likely will never know that activity personally, and am also thankful they have hurt with Billy at the graveside of his dogs - thankful because death does come, thankful that those little fictional hounds demonstrated "no greater love" than laying down their lives for a friend, the pattern walked out by the very God we believe in, who mercifully rescued us from eternal death in his Son. In some inexplicable way, that book may prepare them for facing death in real life, give them empathy for real friends near them who walk through the Valley of the Shadow, and give them a taste not only for the bitter cup of sorrow we all surely will drink of, but shine a ray of hope about the beauty of life here and now, even after losses, as well as the life yet to come where death will never touch again, and where glory more permanent than the promise of a blooming red fern lasts forever.

For the joy of reading,



  1. Hi Liz,

    I've been reading here for quite a long time now. You share so much and I have nodded in agreement often and then found unknown treasures! I couldn't let this one go buy while remaining in the shadows. :)

    Thank you for sharing about the beauty of this book, and also the pain of this special family as well as yours and many others. All are in my prayers.

    This book is such a treasure. My 4th grade teacher read it to our class (35 years ago!) and I have read it several times since then. I still have the paperback I ordered from a Weekly Reader book order back then. The cover is missing and my name is written on the front page in pen in 4th-grade-style penmanship. It is the one I read three times through my school years, then to our three daughters, later to a son, and will read it again to our youngest son.

    Yes, good living literature is so important in preparing our children (and ourselves!) for the pain and hardships of real life-- even if we have to read with a box of Kleenex nearby, or sometimes hand the book to someone sturdy enough to get through those tender places!

    Thank you for sharing about this book and your loss.
    Hugs and blessings to you~

  2. Tina,

    Thank you for coming out of the "shadows" to share your experience
    with this book. I missed it as a child, probably because a boy and
    his hunting dogs wasn't my cup of tea, but after reading it to Emily,
    I've been reading it to each child ever since. It is worthy as a good story as well as for a character picture of perseverance, loyalty, industry, family love, and definitely not to be missed in anyone's childhood reading life.