Inventory: Nine Classic Instances Of Animal Snuff For Kids
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1. The Red Pony (John Steinbeck, 1933)
Whence comes the tradition of heartrending children's classics in which a central character spends an entire book caring for and loving a very special animal, only to have it die in the end, usually granting life lessons, hard-won maturity, and heavy-duty pathos? Possibly from John Steinbeck's seminal, semi-autobiographical classic The Red Pony, in which a boy's beloved and highly symbolic pony loses a gruesome, graphic battle with illness. Like every other book on this list but one, this depressing classic book later became a depressing classic movie.
2. Old Yeller (Fred Gipson, 1956)
Ask 10 random people about the greatest popular-entertainment-related trauma of their childhoods, and you'll probably find it's an even split between the death of Bambi's mom and the death of Old Yeller, a brave farm dog who redeems himself for bad behavior by saving his master's life. As a reward, he eventually gets killed by said traumatized young master, who manfully bites the bullet and saves Yeller from hydrophobia the only way he can. Fortunately, Old Yeller had a sequel–er, a son–to carry on the family tradition.
3. The Yearling (Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, 1938)
An earlier example of gritty miserabilism in which a young farm boy saves a cherished animal companion from pain by killing it himself, The Yearling is a bit unusual in that it's about a domesticated deer rather than a more traditional pet. The hero, Jody, adopts the deer as a fawn after its mother is slaughtered to help Jody's father survive a rattlesnake bite; he raises it to adulthood, whereupon he has to shoot it. It's like Bambi all over again, only Bambi and his mom both bite it in this version.
4. Ring Of Bright Water (Gavin Maxwell, 1960)
In a notable break from the line of stories about loyal dogs and wolves who go from beloved pet to moldering carcass, Gavin Maxwell's Ring Of Bright Water is a real-life-inspired story about a stodgy Brit, his fun-loving, insatiably curious pet otter, and their new life together in the Scottish highlands. The 1969 MGM film adaptation is sweet, low-key, almost naturalistic magic, right up to the point where a Scots road-worker offhandedly bludgeons the otter to death with a pickaxe, and is then astonished at the horror of the woman who was taking it for a stroll. "It was only an otter!" he protests, not that the millions of shrieking children in the theaters likely heard him.
5. Julie Of The Wolves (Jean Craighead George, 1972)
The only one of these books to feature a female protagonist, and–hmm–the only one that hasn't been made into a film, Jean Craighead George's best-loved novel wriggles out of the mold a bit, in that the adored animals here aren't pets; they're wild wolves that adopt the eponymous Julie and enable her to survive after her home life turns spectacularly sour. But their freedom doesn't let them escape the animal-snuff pattern: They die, and Julie winds up accepting the tragic ways of the world, and going home to their killer. Two sequels later continued Julie's story for anyone whose heart didn't break with the first installment.
6. J.T. (Jane Wagner, 1969)
A poor boy coming of age in the Harlem ghetto comes back from the brink of apathetic criminality and finds self-worth in caring for something outside himself: a battered, one-eyed, scrawny old alley cat. Then he finds out how the world really works when some local kids torment the cat to torment him, and while trying to escape, it gets run over. Fortunately, in the way of uplifting children's stories about dead animals everywhere, he's rewarded with a cute new kitten, and the cycle of life continues.
7. Where The Red Fern Grows (Wilson Rawls, 1961)
Where The Red Fern Grows yanks extra-hard on the heartstrings, with not one but two loyal, beloved hounds dying at the end–one to save his master, the other out of grief for the first. Like so many of these books, it's a beautiful but anguished paean to love, devotion, and sacrifice, with a lengthy buildup in which the book's boy protagonist works his ass off for two years to buy the dogs–a pair of purebred coon hounds–and spends much of the rest of the book thoroughly enjoying his childhood with them before it comes to an end with their deaths–which, in addition to saving his life, enable his family to achieve a long-held dream. Yay.
8. Sounder (William H. Armstrong, 1970)
The dog companion of this classic about poor black Southern sharecroppers isn't as much the central focus as the animals in most of these books, in part because he gets shot early on while trying to protect his family, and he disappears for a good chunk of the story. But he gets the title to himself, and his climactic death, peaceful and weirdly uplifting as it is, pretty much sums up the exhausting miseries his owners live in, and one of the few reliefs they can hope for.
9. Never Cry Wolf (Farley Mowat, 1963)
Wolves again, hunters again, the frozen arctic again It's like Julie Of The Wolves II, except with an adult white-guy hero instead of a teenaged Eskimo heroine. Oh, and this one came first. The gorgeous film version was directed by Carroll Ballard, who started his career with The Black Stallion and went on to helm Fly Away Home and Duma. In those stories, it's the people rather than the animals who die sorry deaths to impart powerful symbolism, possibly indicating that authors have lightened up a little on the animal snuff in the last couple of decades. Or maybe just that the time is ripe for this century's great animal-death novel.