It may be hard to believe but I'd never seen the movie Old Yeller til last year. I knew it was about a dog, and that it was sad, but that was it. I watched the movie last year, and it was sad. Very sad. So sad that I was a bit anxious about reading the book.
And it is a sad book, but young Travis has such a great voice. Immediately distinctive. And totally engaging. Fourteen year old Travis Coates has to be the man about his family's farm in the Texas Hill Country in the frontier years of the mid 19th century, when his father leaves to take cattle to Abilene, Kansas. Travis is left on the farm with his mother, and younger brother Little Arliss. Old Yeller moves onto the farm soon after and wins a place in the family's hearts despite his thieving ways.
Little Arliss is annoying like all little brothers. He keeps playing in the dam used by the family for drinking water. He continually collects all sorts of critters, and he generally gets in the way. Travis has a lot of work to do. He has to ensure that the family's corn crop isn't robbed by the many varmints that want to eat it- raccons, skunks and bears. I don't think enough books these days use the word varmints. I think we should bring it back. He has to brand their pigs, even though they are essentially living wild in the surrounding land.
There's plenty to educate and amuse a modern Australian, or probably an urban dweller from anywhere about the habits of various varmints. The racoons come to raid the corn field at night. They "strip the shucks back with their little hands, and gnaw the milky kernels off the cob." Skunks like watermelons, they "open up little round holes in the rinds and reach in with their forefeet and drag out the juicy insides". Coyotes like watermelon too. Deer aren't as fussy and like corn, melons and peas. Wild hogs pop their teeth.
Travis has a fantastic turn of phrase:
I was weak as a rain-chilled chicken, but most of the hurting had stopped.
She (a doe he is trying to shoot) kept doing me that way til finally my heart was flopping around inside my chest like a catfish in a wet sack.
The references to both animals and people afflicted by rabies, or hydrophobia as it is most commonly refered to in the text is rather fascinating medically. I remember them calling it hydrophobe in the movie version. Australia is a rabies free continent, so we have no cultural memory of such sickness. We don't have to vaccinate our pets against rabies even. Travis's Mama cleans his leg wounds from the wild pigs with hot water then pours turpentine into the wound. We can only wonder at how much that would hurt.
And Travis was quite the ethicist for his time:
I never minded killing for meat. Like Papa had told me, every creature has to kill to live. But to wound an animal was something else.
This is something I've been thinking about for some time. Not that I'm forced to hunt for my meat. A simple trip to the supermarket, or the butcher is all it takes. But more generally our use of meat and the ethical and environmental impacts of our diet. It has all become quite contentious and topical in Australia in the past few weeks, after revelations (and rather graphic footage) of the treatment of Australian cattle shipped to Indonesia as part of our live export trade.
But ultimately, Old Yeller is a book about a boy and his dog. Travis and Old Yeller forge a strong bond in the few short months that they live and work together. Old Yeller is a bit of a loveable rascal. But he is a faithful, wise and brave dog who protects his new family from multiple threats. And he pays for his devotion in the famous climax of the book.
Old Yeller is a fantastic book, that deserves to be more widely read.
I'm offering up Old yeller as my first post to both The Classic Bribe and Kid Konnection at Booking Mama