This book has a sad ending, and may lead to some questions about God. It is still a very enjoyable read, especially for boys (although I have known some girls that loved this book too). The message is summed up in a speech made near the end of the book: “You can read every day where a dog saved the life of a drowning child or lay down his life for his master. Some people call this loyalty. I don’t. I may be wrong, but I call it love – The deepest kind of love…It’s a shame that people all over the world can’t have that kind of love in their hearts… There would be no wars, slaughter, or murder; no greed or selfishness. It would be the kind of world that God wants us to have – a wonderful world.”
My Mom-Meter gives this particular book an overall safety rating of 2 (Moderately Safe) for ages 8 and up.
Wikipedia has a good summary of the book here.
Here are the potential moral issues parents might wish to talk with their kids about:
- A few dog fights are graphically described (just two dogs fighting, not an organized event).
- Billy (ten years old) loves to hunt and really wants a gun (but will not get one until he is twenty-one). Potential Discussion Point: What does our family think about guns?
- Billy sets steel traps and catches animals to sell their skins to save for hunting dogs.
- Billy saves his money for two years to buy his dogs. Potential Discussion Point: Have you ever saved your money for something you wanted that was really expensive? Was it worth it?
- Billy doesn’t tell his parents about all the money he saved or that he’s planning to get the dogs. He is afraid that his father would buy a mule with the money. Potential Discussion Point: Why do you think Billy didn’t want to tell his parents about the money he was saving? Do you think that Billy’s dad would have taken his money to buy a mule?
- Billy’s grandfather says “Be damned” twice when overcome by emotion. Billy observes that was the closest he ever heard his grandfather get to cursing. He also says “I’ll be darned” once. An older boy, Rubin, says “I’ll kill them damn hounds.”
- Billy was impatient to get his dogs, so he left home without telling anyone and walked twenty miles to pick up his dogs. Potential Discussion Point: Billy’s parents were worried about him. Was it kind of Billy to leave without telling them where he was going?
- Billy is bullied by the kids in town because he looked poor. Potential Discussion Point: Have you ever been picked on because of something you couldn’t help? Have you ever picked on someone else because of they way they looked?
- Billy sees a drunk in town. It’s a passing reference. Billy’s grandfather hides a jug of corn liquor from Billy’s grandmother.
- Billy is embarrassed by the stares and teasing of the townpeople, so he insults a woman and fights a group of boys. Potential Discussion Point: Have you ever done something mean just because you were embarrassed?
- Billy hears a “hellish scream” of a mountain lion in the woods. He spends a sleepless night scaring the mountain lion away. Potential Discussion Point: What would you do if you heard a mountain lion in the woods?
- Several times in the book, Billy believes that God answered his prayers. When Billy asks his dad if God answers prayer, Billy’s dad says “I’m afraid I can’t help you there. You’ll have to decide for yourself.” Billy’s mother says at another point that God only answers prayers “that are said from the heart. You have to be sincere and believe in Him.” Potential Discussion Point: Do you believe God answers prayer?
- Billy’s mother tells him that if he scares her the way he just did, she’ll “take a switch and wear you to a frizzle.”
- Billy makes a trap the way his grandfather tells him, with a hole in a log, nails, and a piece of shiny tin. It’s a cruel way to trap a raccoon, and Billy and his father agree that it’s more sportsmanlike to hunt than to trap.
- There is a description of Billy’s father having to “whack” a raccoon to death.
- Billy’s dog tree a coon up a huge old tree. Billy had promised his dogs he would get any raccoon they caught, so he sticks to his work and works on chopping down the enormous tree all by himself. It takes him a long time, and he is very sore, but he does it. As Billy’s dad says “If a man’s word isn’t any good, he’s no good himself.” Billy is sad he had to chop down such a beautiful tree, but proud that he kept his word. Potential Discussion Point: Is it important to keep your word?
- Ol Man Pritchard (a passing character) was rumored to have killed a man in Missouri.
- Rainie, tough boy, was rumored to have cut a boy with a knife during a fight.
- Rubin orders chewing tobacco and lies by saying it’s for his father and then chews it himself.
- Billy makes a bet of two dollars with Rubin and Rainie that his dogs will catch a “ghost coon” that no dog has been able to catch. The raccoon is real, but has been too clever for anyone to catch before. Potential Discussion Point: What does our family believe about betting?
- Billy almost punches Rainie for calling him a coward. Rubin tells Rainie that “if he didn’t shut up, he was going to bloody his nose.” Rubin tells Rainie to shut up several times. Rainie tells Rubin to bloody Billy’s nose. Billy decides he doesn’t want to kill the “ghost coon,” and Rubin says that if Billy stops his dogs from hunting, he will beat Billy half to death. He also tells him that he would catch Billy hunting one night and take his knife to Billy. Potential Discussion Point: What would you do if someone said they would hurt you if you told on them?
- Rubin runs after Billy’s dogs to kill them with Billy’s ax. He trips, falls on the ax, and dies. There is a graphic description of Billy pulling his ax out of Rubin’s stomach, describing the blood gushing out. Potential Discussion Point: Is it wise to run with sharp objects? Do you think Rubin got what was coming to him?
- Billy hears two screech owls and remembers a superstition that if you hear more than one screech owl, you’ll have bad luck. His father and grandfather tell him not to worry. Potential Discussion Point: Does our family believe in superstitions?
- Billy’s grandfather exaggerates stories about Billy’s dogs.
- Dan, one of Billy’s beloved dogs, dies protecting Billy from a mountain lion, and then Ann, the other dog, dies of a broken heart. Potential Discussion Point: Do you love anything so much that you would die to protect it?
- Billy’s father says “The Good Lord has a reason for everything He does.” Billy’s mother tells him that she thinks God made a heaven for good dogs. Potential Discussion Point: Do you agree with Billy’s father? Do you think there is a place for good pets when they die?
- Billy finds out that all the money he and his dogs had made catching coons was enough for his family to move to town and for him and his sisters to get an education. He finds out that, if his dogs hadn’t died, his parents would have left him and his dogs with his grandparents to help his grandfather in the general store, since Billy’s dogs would hate living in town. Potential Discussion Point: Do you think that it was better for Billy to stay with his family?
From a kid’s perspective: “Boys (and maybe girls) that are ages 10 to 12 who like dogs and hunting will like it. I give it 3 stars out of 5 stars.”