One of my goals this summer was to read a few children’s book “classics” that I missed along the way. One of the books on my list was Frederick Gipson’s 1957 Newbery-Award-winning-book, Old Yeller. Actually, I’m listening to the audio CD, read by Peter Francis James. Confession: I’m not sure I can finish. I’m right at the place where “it’s” about to happen, and I’m not sure I can go on. Arnie, my 10-pound Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, is about as far away from Old Yeller as you can get in the dog kingdom, but I’ve been afraid to meet Arnie’s glance lately – feeling like I might start to cry.
As contradictory as it sounds though – I love this book and will somehow make myself finish. Old Yeller takes place in Texas during the late 1800s. Gipson’s portrait of a life so far from our daily reality is a reminder of the challenges people faced on a regular basis back in the frontier days. Travis, the 14-year-old boy, is left to provide for his mother and young brother while his father is on a cattle drive. Travis works hard – and it is really hard physical work. As a middle school teacher, I can’t help thinking about how different Travis’s life is compared to the 21st century suburban lives of my students. Not that our kids don’t work hard, but the demands are so radically different that they defy comparison. In fact, when Travis gets hurt and has to walk a long way back home with a serious injury, I wished he had a cell phone.
I would recommend Old Yeller to kids (and adults) ages 10 and older. The portrait of a time when people were completely dependent on the natural world is fascinating, but a certain level of emotional maturity is necessary to understand the sometimes harsh realities of the life cycle.