There are a lot of books/movies that could be added to the list of depressing animal stories for kids, and Old Yeller is definitely one of them.
However, even though it is the granddaddy of all depressing animal books for kids, it is a story that I have a soft spot for. In fact, I’ve reread it a few times and always enjoy it. I can’t deny that it is terribly sad, but I think it has a lot of good things to offer before it rips your heart out and depresses you for days.
Though the book is something I have revisited on numerous occasions as an adult, I have not watched the movie since I was a child. I remedied that this past weekend.
As always, beware–some spoilers do follow.
My thoughts on the book
I think when most people think of this story, they automatically think of the dog, and that’s perfectly reasonable. He’s a pretty important part of the story. He even makes the title.
But I think the story works so well simply because there is more to it than that. I’ve always thought the story worked as a great frontier story, and I especially noticed that on my most recent reading of the book.
The author, Fred Gipson, does an excellent job of capturing the everyday details of ordinary life in the Texas Hill Country after the Civil War. The Coates family are normal farmers just going about their lives, eking out their existence in a tough economy and battling an array of problems and threats, including drought, animal attacks, and obnoxious neighbors.
In the narration through teen-aged Travis’s voice, we learn all about these obstacles and the daily drudge of endless chores, but it’s never boring, and it never feels like Gipson is beating you over the head with these details to impress you with his research or knowledge of the time period. It feels organic to the story, and I always enjoy that. A native of the area, Gipson also has an ear for writing regional dialect. His characters’ dialogue sounds authentic but without seeming hokey.
On a similar note, I also appreciate how ordinary and normal Travis is. A trend I have noticed in newer fiction with teen-aged (or child) protagonists is the focus on main characters who are somehow special or extraordinary. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it and I enjoy it in some stories, but I feel like fiction is overrun with it now, so I am pretty over chosen one teenagers in literature at the moment.
For that reason, I find it so refreshing that Travis is a normal kid. He doesn’t have magical powers or anything special in his background or about his personality. He’s competent and intelligent, but he definitely seems like someone you’d run into in real life. Even Old Yeller is pretty normal when you think about it. Sure, he’s a great working dog and he’s fiercely loyal, but he’s not really doing anything that other dogs don’t do, and I like that too. It just helps add to the realism of the story.
This sense of realism makes this book an excellent example of historical fiction, coming-of-age stories, and animal fiction all rolled into one. There’s a certain universality about its presentation of family dynamics, everyday life, and the bond between humans and animals that make it a truly timeless story.
Even better, it’s action-packed and fast-paced, and it is short enough to easily be read in one sitting. Granted, you’ll probably be sobbing uncontrollably at the end of it, but still, it’s a great book.
Follow the link below to the next page to read my thoughts about the movie.