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Where the Red Fern Grows is a book about a boy named Billy Coleman and the adventures he has with his two coonhound dogs named Old Dan and Little Ann. Billy spends two years earning enough money in order to buy the puppies. After that, he trains them to hunt raccoons, with Old Dan displaying strength and Little Ann displaying intelligence. Over time they become known as the best coonhounds in the area.

Not long after earning local fame, two boys named Rubin and Rainie, of the Pritchard family, challenge Billy to a raccoon hunting contest. They say that no hound could ever chase the "ghost raccoon," a raccoon that lives near the Pritchard's home. Billy tries to ignore the challenge, but the Pritchards are mean, and start to talk about Billy's grandfather. His grandfather starts getting furious and tells Billy to accept the challenge so that Old Dan and Little Ann can chase it. After a few hours of hunting and going through the ghost raccoon's tricks, Little Ann chases the raccoon. When Billy does not want to kill it,starting to give respect for the animal, Rubin and Rainie get angry, and at that time the Pritchards' blue tick coonhound comes up and challenges Old Dan. Rubin tells Billy, saying that his dog will easily beat Old Dan, then, Little Ann joins to protect Old Dan and the blue tick coonhound loses quickly. Rubin worries for his dog's life, and grabs Billy's axe and runs toward Old Dan and Little Ann, trying to kill them. Rubin then trips, falling on the axe and dying due to his injuries.

A few weeks later, Billy's grandfather enters him into a championship raccoon hunt, putting Billy against experienced hunters and the finest hounds in all the country. Before the hunt started, Billy enters Little Ann into a contest for the best-looking hound, where she wins and is given the silver cup. On the fourth night of the hunt, Old Dan and Little Ann chase three coons,making it to the final round. The sixth night, the dogs chase one raccoon before a blizzard hits. Billy, his dad, grandfather, and the judge lose sight of the dogs, and when they finally find them, Billy's grandfather falls and sprains his ankle which prevents him from walking. They built a fire, and when Billy's dad chops down a tree, three coons rise. The dogs takes down two of them, and chase the final raccoon to another tree. In the morning, the hunters find out the two dogs covered with ice circling the bottom of a tree. This last coon wins them the championship, and the gold cup.

One night, after the hunt, Billy and his dogs chase a mountain lion, who attacks the dogs. Old Dan is seriously wounded, but holds off the animal long enough for Billy to get the killing blow. Billy rushes his dogs home, but Old Dan's wounds are severe and he dies a few hours later. Little Ann survives the attack, but dies of grief a few days later by Old Dan's grave, since she lost the will to live without him. Billy buries her next to Old Dan.

It is revealed that the family has been saving the dog's earnings from Billy's raccoon furs, as well as the dogs' winnings from the championship raccoon hunt. With that money, the family can finally afford to move to town. On the day of that Billy and his family are to leave the farm to move to town, Billy visits his dogs' graves to say goodbye. When visiting, he sees that a large plant has grown between the two hounds, a red fern. According to an old Indian legend, only an angel can plant a red fern and wherever it grows is sacred. With this sign, Billy is finally able to recover from his loss.

The book contains examples of:

  • A Boy and His Dogs
  • Asshole Victim: Rubin Pritchard.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: When Billy receives the gold cup trophy for winning the championship coon hunt.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Billy's dogs die, one saving him and one from a broken heart and he is understandably heartbroken. When his family is moving away, Billy goes to say goodbye to his dogs. He sees a symbolic red fern growing on their graves which puts him at peace.
  • Boke and Tsukkomi Routine: Billy's youngest sister and oldest sister have a couple of moments akin to this.
  • Clutching Hand Trap: The book has something similar as a way to trap raccoons. You cut a small hole in a hollow log, drive some nails around it pointing down and inward, and place something shiny at the bottom like cut-up pieces of tin can. A raccoon passing by will be attracted, reach in to grab it, and catch its fist on the nails trying to pull it out. The narrator thinks his grandfather is teasing him when he first tells him this method, because all the raccoon would have to do is let go of the tin. But the grandfather assures him that a raccoon will never willingly let go of anything shiny. (After the narrator has caught one raccoon like this and can use its skin to train his hunting dogs, his father makes him pull the nails out of all his traps, because if raccoons are that serious about their tin then they don't have a sporting chance.)
  • Death by Newbery Medal: How Old Dan and Little Ann meet their maker.
  • Determinator: Billy, and how. He worked for two entire years to get that $50 to buy the pups he wanted.
  • Dogs Are Dumb: Old Dan is a mild example. Lampshaded by Billy when he says, "It wasn't too hard for a smart old coon to fool Old Dan."
    • Inverted with Little Ann. "...but there were none that prowled the river banks that could fool my Little Ann."
  • Deus Ex Machina: The titular red fern.
  • Family-Unfriendly Death / Karmic Death: Rubin Pritchard. It was so horrifying that the more graphic parts were edited out in some reprints.
    • Old Dan's death is the former. Getting disemboweled by a mountain lion. Billy even mentions that on the way home from just barely surviving it, Old Dan's entrails were dragging on the ground behind him. Ewwwwwww.
  • Heroic Dog: Old Dan and Little Ann die fighting off a mountain lion that was attacking Billy.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Rubin falls on his own axe and dies from it.
  • Narm: Rubin's death in the movie, which was more of an in-universe Epic Fail than anything else.
  • The Straight Will and Grace: Old Dan and Little Ann.
  • Sweetie Graffiti: Billy finds the names Dan and Ann carved in a heart on a tree and uses them as names for his dogs.
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