The Booky Man: Children’s Accursed Literature

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The first book that ever made me cry told the story of an egg-sucking, ringwormy male with one ear chewed off.

Did I mention he was yellow? And I was six?

Fred Gipson’s Old Yeller introduces Death to many young readers. (In it, a boy must shoot his own beloved dog to keep it from spreading rabies.)

There’s lots of company on the Children’s Accursed Literature bookshelf.

Here’s a rule: If there’s a cute animal in the first chapter of a book, that animal has to be shot between the eyes by the last chapter … or dispatched by auto accident, old age, steel trap, asteroid explosion, or whatever other means a sadistic author can invent.

Think of The Yearling, the 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Sorry if you haven’t read it, but my god—in this one, a little boy has to shoot a pet deer he has raised since it was a fawn. And what about Bambi’s mom, huh?

Not even arachnids are safe. Sweet Charlotte in E.B. White’s classic Charlotte’s Web—my Lord, can I even tell this?—even Charlotte bites the dust.

Is it any wonder with all this childhood pet slaughter our children get traumatized, that they wake up with nightmares and need a bedside light? Children’s Accursed Literature should carry a label: Warning—Dead Beloved Pet Inside.

Here’s what happens in Old Yeller.

The Coates family lives in east Texas, the hill country. Pa rides off to drive cattle to Abilene. He leaves his wife and teen-aged Travis, now the man of the house, and five-year-old Arliss, a rock-throwing maniac who can’t stay out of the spring that holds the family drinking water. The countryside crawls with rattlesnakes and savage wild pigs and even the occasional Comanche. A good dog is lots better than a baby brother.

One day, a stray yellow mutt—a yeller dog, as they say in Texas—takes up with little Arliss. Travis wants the thing gone. Old Yeller seems just a mangy, substandard issue of a real dog.

But Old Yeller saves Arliss from an enraged mama bear down at the swimming hole. Travis and readers alike fall hard for the noisy yolk-colored canine. Then Old Yeller saves Travis’s life when he’s attacked by wild hogs. The dog lays down his own yellow hide to distract the razor-tusked razorbacks while Travis hobbles away, gored to the bone in one leg.

Still, Old Yeller lives. And as Old Yeller and Travis recover, a rabies epidemic burns through the hill country. A mad cow wanders onto the home place, and Travis shoots it. As the family bonfires the cow, a rabid wolf attacks Mama and a neighbor child. Once again, Old Yeller saves the Coates’s bacon by fighting off the wolf long enough to let family members escape. But guess what? The rabid wolf has bitten Old Yeller.

Travis has this conversation with his mother.

“He had to have been mad, Son,” Mama wound up. ‘You know that no wolf in his right senses would have acted that way. Not even a big loafer wolf.”

“Yessum,” I said, “and it’s sure a good thing that Old Yeller was along to keep him fought off.” …

Mama waited a little bit, then said in a quiet voice. “It was a good thing for us, Son, but it wasn’t good for Old Yeller.”

Good reader, did you get that?

It wasn’t good for Old Yeller.

That’s like telling Jackie Kennedy it was a nice parade, except for that little thing with the top of her husband’s head.

Charles McNair is Paste‘s books editor. His novel Land o’ Goshen was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.