The story starts out with Billy Colman, now a grown man reflecting on the year that he bought his two dogs and everything else that happened after. Billy, a ten year old boy, lives on a farm in the Ozarks. One day, Billy found two coonhounds for sale for twenty five dollars each. He desperately wants the two coonhounds, but his dad tells him that their family can't afford to buy two dogs. Hunting dogs are too expensive and Papa has a farm to take care of, as well as Mama, Billy, and Billy's three sisters. Billy decides to earn the money for the dogs on his own. Billy works for two years to earn enough money for the hounds. Once he finally saved up enough money, he gave it to his grandfather, who orders the dogs for him. Billy is so excited to get his dogs that he sneaks off in the middle of the night to go to town and pick them up. On his way home, he has to spend the night in a cave. Outside the cave, they hear a mountain lion and the two puppies howl to scare it away. He decides to name them Old Dan and Little Ann. Billy can already see that Old Dan is going to be a brave dog and Little Ann is going to be very smart.
As soon as Billy gets home with his two pups, he immediately wants to start training them to hunt raccoons. To train his dogs, Billy catches a raccoon and uses the fur to teach Old Dan and Little Ann how to chase a raccoon. His grandfather shows him a way that will help him catch any raccoon. Just when Billy is about to give up on the trap, he catches a coon.
On the first day of hunting season in fall, Billy is ready to take his dogs out hunting. He promises them that if they catch a coon, he will do the rest. The first night out, his dogs find a raccoon and chase it into one of the largest trees in the forest. Billy feels obligated to cut the tree down because he promised his dogs that he would help them get it. Cutting the tree down takes a few days, but when the giant sycamore finally falls, his dogs catch the raccoon and Billy is very proud of them.
Billy and his two dogs go out hunting almost every night. Billy brings the coonskins to his grandfather to sell, and soon stories about him and his dogs spread all over the Ozarks. Not long after gaining local fame, two boys from the Pritchard family (Ruben and Rainie) bet Billy that he and his dogs can't catch the mysterious "ghost coon" that no other hunter has ever been able to catch. After a few hours of hunting for the raccoon, Little Ann finally chases it. Once the raccoon is caught in a tree, Billy decides to let it go out of respect. Ruben and Rainie get angry and start to beat Billy up, and at the same time the Pritchards' dog starts to fight Old Dan. Ruben grabs Billy's ax to try and kill Old Dan but he falls on the ax and kills himself. Billy is very upset but after a while he goes to Rubens' grave with some flowers and feels much better.
Weeks pass, and Billy's grandfather enters Billy in a coon hunting tournament. At the tournament there are a lot of experienced hunters with expensive equipment. On the first day of the tournament, Little Ann manages to win a beauty contest. Billy also makes it to the championship round of the competition. While Billy, Papa, Billy's grandfather, and the judge are out hunting with the dogs, a blizzard hits and they lose track of the dogs. In the morning they find the dogs with just enough raccoons to win the contest. Billy wins $300 and gives it to his family.
One night after the tournament, Billy takes his dogs out to go hunting. They end up on the trail of what Billy thinks is a raccoon, but when his dogs get the "raccoon" into a tree, they find out it is a mountain lion. Old Dan and Little Ann get into a fight with the mountain lion and injures them, especially Old Dan. The dogs save Billy's life by jumping in between him and the lion. Finally, Billy strikes the mountain lion with his ax and kills him. Unfortunately, Little Dan's wounds are too severe and he dies the next day. Billy is heartbroken, but Little Ann is so sad that she loses her will to live and dies a few days later. Billy buries both dogs next to each other on top of a hill. His Papa tells him that it is for the best because they are going to use all the money that the dogs earned to move into the city. Even though his parents try to make him feel better, nothing works. Right before they leave, Billy goes to visit his dogs' graves to say goodbye. He is astonished by what he sees. A beautiful red fern has grown in between the two graves. Billy remembers an old Indian legend that only an angel can plant a red fern and wherever it grows is sacred. Finally Billy feels like he is able to move away without feeling guilty for leaving them. Billy says his goodbyes and says that he will never forget them or the red fern.
1. What do you think the main theme of this book is?
2. Do you think that love or determination helped Billy and his dogs do well at hunting raccoons?