Book Review: “Old Yeller” by Fred Gipson

Old Yeller (HarperClassics): Gipson, Fred: 9780064403825: Amazon.com: Books

Book Details:

Year of Publication: 1956

Genre: Literary Classic (Middle Grade)

Format (How I Read It): Paperback

Goodreads Synopsis:

At first, Travis couldn’t stand the sight of Old Yeller.

The stray dog was ugly, and a thieving rascal, too. But he sure was clever, and a smart dog could be a big help on the wild Texas frontier, especially with Papa away on a long cattle drive up to Abilene.

Strong and courageous, Old Yeller proved that he could protect Travis’s family from any sort of danger. But can Travis do the same for Old Yeller?

Book Review

But Papa had told me right from the start that fear was a right and natural feeling for anybody, and nothing to be ashamed of.
“It’s a thing of your mind,” he said, “and you can train your mind to handle it just like you can train your arm to throw a rock.”

Themes: Fear is natural. Focus on the good things. Don’t judge a book by its cover. When you love someone, don’t let them suffer.

Character Development: I grew to really love Travis and Old Yeller and the relationship that they formed. At first, I wasn’t sure of Travis. He was surly and tried so hard to act grown up… However, the reader really gets to understand him better as the story goes on, and he grows a lot and learns how to balance his responsibilities while still leaving a soft spot in his heart for those he loves most. His brother, Little Arliss, is such a little rascal! Sometimes you feel annoyed with him because, well, he’s annoying! But it’s in such a classic “little sibling” way that you can’t help but laugh, and his antics really are pretty funny sometimes. I also really loved his mother in this story. Mama takes on the traditional roles of wives and mothers during this time period, but she is also portrayed as being patient, strong, and capable.

Plot/Pacing: It’s a short book that moves at a steady pace; there weren’t really any sections that I felt were slow (maybe just in the beginning as I was getting used to the setting and writing style). There are lots of adventures and hardships that keep the plot moving as well.

Writing Style: Due to the setting (on a ranch in 1860s rural Texas), there are some outdated words and expressions used throughout the story. I even had to stop and think about it sometimes, and I think this would be difficult for kids (especially English language learners). Listening to it being read aloud would likely help a lot, but it might still be confusing. There was also some awkward syntax/sentence structure choices that I noticed throughout the book. I often found myself having to reread sentences multiple times to get it to make sense in my head. In general, I would describe the writing style as not being overly descriptive. There were no frills; Gipson just tells the story exactly how it happens. It was straightforward and I actually really liked that!

“…I guess I don’t mean it’s a thing that you ought to forget. What I mean is, things like that happen. They may seem mighty cruel and unfair, but that’s how life is a part of the time.
“But that isn’t the only way life is. A part of the time, it’s mighty good. And a man can’t afford to waste all the good part, worrying about the bad parts. That makes it all bad… You understand?”

“Bingeability”: Moderate-high. It’s a short book, and once the story picks up it’s pretty hard to put down.

Emotional Investment: High. Books with animals typically produce a pretty emotional response, and you really get attached to the characters in this book (human or otherwise).

Windows and Mirrors: 1860s rural Texas. Ranch life. Raising crops and animals.

Overall Thoughts: Overall, I think this book has definitely earned its status as a children’s classic. Since it’s a classic, I already knew the ending even though I’d never read it before. However, it happens so fast that I really wasn’t prepared for it and ended up crying through the last few pages. I read some reviews complaining about the level of trauma in this book, and saying that they didn’t really appreciate the “life is hard” theme since they’ve had their own trauma and already know that life is hard. I do think it’s worth noting that if you’ve experienced loss of animals (especially in a violent or traumatic way), this book may not be a good fit for you. And that’s okay! Thinking about myself as a child, though, and the privilege I had growing up, I think a story like this would have been really eye-opening for me. So you definitely have to make the right decision for yourself (and your students/children) when deciding whether or not to read this. In general, this is a well-written and powerful story that I think will long be considered a classic of children’s literature.

Recommendation: I probably wouldn’t do this as a read-aloud just because it’s kind of outdated and I think there are more modern books that would be better for read-aloud in a classroom. However, it’s definitely worth keeping in a classroom or home library, and would be a great one for kids and guardians to read together. I’m also wary of using this one in the classroom in other ways just due to the outdated language and dialect/accent that comes through in the dialogue. Many of my students are emergent bilinguals, and I think the language in this book would be really difficult to understand (even for native English-speakers). In general though, I’d recommend this book for those that think it would be a good fit! Especially adults who missed out on this one when they were kids (like I did!).

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Thank you for reading my review! Leave a comment letting me know if you’ve read this one or have any questions about it, and keep an eye out for my next review!

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