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Will crusty outdoors tale like 'Big Red' resonate with kids today?

Rick Sinnott
The book "Big Red" by Jim Kjelgaard about a boy's love of his dog has become a classic with young readers. Aaron Jansen illustration

How often does a book you read as a child influence the choices you make as an adult?

Reading to a child is one of life’s simple pleasures. I read my daughters hundreds of picture books, of course, but when they were a little older, even after they learned to read on their own, we took epic journeys through books like “The Hobbit” and “The Secret Garden.” Now I’m looking forward to sharing some “big girl” books with my granddaughter, whose idea of a good author still tilts toward Dr. Seuss.

For me, the anticipation is half the fun, and I’m planning years ahead. One book I think I’d like to share with her one day is a novel I read in fifth or sixth grade, over 50 years ago: “Big Red.”  

“Big Red” was the first of a series of outdoor books written by Jim Kjelgaard, stories about a boy and his dogs. I was living in Germany at the time, in military housing, unable to own a dog and far from the woodsy environments featured in Kjelgaard’s adventures. I longed for a dog, a gun, and a long walk to the nearest neighbor.

Becoming a wildlife biologist

The Irish setter Red and his 17-year-old partner were free to explore the outdoors whenever they wanted. They often encountered wildlife, shooting some, studying some, and fighting some. Red’s owner was a trapper and I figured that’s what I would be someday, even though I had no practical experience in that field. It was a means to an end, a way to live among wild animals. Bears, wolverines, foxes, deer, grouse: things like that.  

Kjelgaard’s other young-adult novels featured hunters, big game guides, game wardens, naturalists, and wildlife photographers. Their dust jackets often portrayed someone carrying or aiming a rifle. You don’t see that much in the post-Harry Potter era.

Some years later I learned about a profession – wildlife biology – that would let me interact with wildlife in ways a hardscrabble trapper can’t imagine. I earned a college education through the GI Bill and eventually became a wildlife biologist. Best job in the world. Without a doubt, Kjelgaard was my first and best guidance counselor.

It occurred to me, in my role as grandpa, that one of my grandkids might inherit my love of wild things. The oldest, still 2 years old, but barely, is learning to identify animal tracks in the snow.

I’m not a pushy or unreasonable adult, and it was possible that my memory of “Big Red” might be a little tarnished, that the book might not meet modern expectations. Some of the classics, like so-called celebrities, are famous for no discernable reason. They aren’t necessarily fit to compete with the likes of Hannah Montana, who appears to have her own television show, agent, marketing guru, and a truly obnoxious website that undoubtedly appeals to girls. But I’m trying not to judge a book by its cover.  I decided to read “Big Red” to myself again before nurturing false expectations.

Deconstructing a young-adult novel

I wasn’t a full page into the book before I had read three cringe-worthy declarations or off-handed remarks. A large black bear left tracks longer than the young man’s foot and wider than his spread hand. Later we learn the bear weighed 650 pounds when it emerged from the den. It had killed a young Holstein bull, breaking its neck with a single blow. In fact, the bear had killed five cattle and 19 sheep. And the 30-30 carbine the young man intended to shoot the bear with was described as “dangerous.” Okay, okay, it’s only a novel.

I know now that a black bear weighing 650 pounds in the spring could easily tip the scales at 900 pounds by the end of summer. That’s awfully close to the biggest black bear ever weighed, and bigger than most grizzly bears. In real life, black bears tend to be smaller than grizzly bears, and most grizzlies don’t leave tracks as wide as the spread fingers of an adult’s hand. Grizzly bears can kill a bull with a single blow, but there aren’t many black bears that would tackle an animal that large. And although a 30-30 carbine can kill a large black bear, it’s a little light for the job. At the risk of over-analyzing a good read, the author seemed to be trying to turn his black bear into a grizzly.

The fun doesn’t end there. Later in the book the boy is stalked all night by a lynx, which his loyal setter keeps at bay. He’s charged and pinned to the ground by a white-tailed buck. A wolverine stalks him and his dog, attempts to claw a hole through the roof of his cabin, and finally tumbles down the chimney in a murderous rage. In the book’s climax the massive black bear, the “savage and unforgiving enemy of every human being in the Wintapi,” tries to kill the young protagonist.

Gunslinger ethics

It all reminds me now of those goofy digital “hunting” games, where every large predator you stumble across tries to kill you. 

The book promotes the gunslinger ethics made famous in 1950s Western films like “Shane” and “High Noon.” Wanting to give a buck a chance to escape “like his Pappy would,” our young hunter startled the deer on purpose, then shot it running through the trees over a hundred yards away. Subsequent experience has taught me that a successful stalk is the embodiment of fair chase. You never risk wounding an animal by letting it run before you shoot.

Even the dog displays an impossibly high set of ethical standards. Red would fight to the death if necessary, but “would not molest or disgrace a fallen enemy.” I get the impression that Kjelgaard, who was born in 1910, grew up reading books like "Ivanhoe" and the "Leatherstocking Tales."

Struck like a tuning fork

On the other hand, the ideas in the book often resonated within my adolescent consciousness like a tuning fork. The book raised the possibility that some people, me for instance, “couldn’t abide in a city” like New York. It modeled respect for one’s parents and being polite to others. It assumed you would earn your own keep. Meat hunting is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s best to keep man-scent off your traps.  

I was surprised to see a reference to the old deer hunter’s adage: “One shot, one deer. Two shots, maybe one deer. Three shots, no deer.” In fact, that’s what Kjelgaard called it, “the old deer hunter’s adage.” This was undoubtedly my introduction to the saying. In 50 years I’ve never known it to fail, though I’m sure it must at times. Life is no novel and the sum of our experience can’t be boiled down to an adage.

At its essence, the book is about a dog’s love for a boy and a boy’s love for a dog. I’ve loved a few dogs, before and after reading “Big Red,” but I suspect the book helped me understand how to love a dog – it’s never a good idea to beat them – and why it’s important. I suspect boys need a dog or need to imagine they need a dog like girls need a horse. It’s about responsibility. It’s about unconditional love and how it’s lost and won.

A wild sensibility

Kjelgaard, whose writing emphasized the values of mid-20th century rural America, doesn’t seem to be on any best-books-for-boys lists anymore. I’m not surprised. Most Americans live in urban areas now, and a book about a boy and his dog roaming the woods probably seems archaic and surreal, if not cheesy, to any kid who can abide living in a city.

By the way, if you’ve only seen the movie you don’t know the book. Walt Disney Studios always gravitates toward the adorable in stories meant for kids. “Cinderella” and “Beauty and the Beast” bear little resemblance to the original fairy tales. Disney’s “documentaries,” including the Academy award-winning “White Wilderness,” which created the hoax of lemming migration and ultimate mass suicide, are no better.

“Big Red” has its faults too, but rereading it 50 years later I still felt its inherent appreciation for wildness and adventure. Any book is worthy if it fosters a joy of reading, a sense of what is possible, a respect for the natural world. Will I read it to my granddaughter? Why not, I didn’t turn out so badly.

I hope she reads this column in 50 years and agrees it was a good book to share.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at  rickjsinnott@gmail.com