Book Review: Old Yeller

Rating: ★★★★★

Travis Coates is a 14-year-old boy, left alone to protect his mother and younger brother on his family’s 19th-century Texas homestead.  When his father goes on a trip leaving him to “act a man’s part,” he throws himself into his new responsibilities.  But the challenges of feeding and protecting his family prove to be greater than his boy’s abilities, and he comes to depend on and love the stray dog which adopts their family.

The story follows chapter after chapter of gritty, riveting and often funny adventures as the family wrestles out a living from the land, dealing with angry bulls, thieving coons, an enraged bear, vicious javelinas, and an outbreak of “hydrophobia” (rabies).  Through these challenges, Travis grows to fill his father’s shoes while Yeller makes himself indispensible, saving the family member’s lives time upon time. In the culmination of the story, Yeller is bitten while fighting off a rabies-infected wolf that had attacked Travis’s mother.  Realizing the bite of the wolf is fatal, and that Yeller will become a danger to the family before he dies, Travis kills him.

It is important to note that Travis is not forced to kill his beloved dog.  He is quick to see that Yeller has been infected with rabies, and (unlike Jody in The Yearling) he does not deny that his dog is a danger to the family.  Although he loves Yeller, he knows his responsibility is first toward his mother and brother.  Although his mother offers to do it for him, he quickly and resolutely pays the price to protect his family.  This self-sacrifice is exactly the kind of character quality our children ought to see as normal, and Travis’s decision grows out of the his emerging character.  It is an extraordinary act of moral courage, but it comes at the end of a story filled with ordinary acts of responsibility.  In this outstanding coming-of-age story, Travis’s manhood is achieved at great cost, and in this cost he proves his worth as a man.

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Publication Information: Gipson, Fred. Old Yeller. Harper. 1956. ISBN: 0060935472.
Categories: 5 Stars, Age 08-12, Book Tree,, Honey For a Child's Heart, Newbery Honor, Read-Aloud Handbook
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Posted on July 15, 2009

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