Fred Gipson’s 1956 “Old Yeller” is a classic, iconic book and movie. It’s a Newbery Honor-winning novel about a mangy, rascal of a stray dog — named Old Yeller — and the Coates family, who adopts Old Yeller while their father is off on a cattle drive. In 1860s Texas, having a dog could be a valuable thing or, in the case of Old Yeller, invaluable. And even though Travis Coates, the teenage boy left to be the “man of the house,” at first doesn’t want Old Yeller (Yeller referring to both the dog’s color and its unique bark), he grows to love the dog. This change of heart has quite a bit to do with Old Yeller saving his brother from a bear, Travis himself from wild hogs and his mom from a rabid wolf.
“Old Yeller” is often referred to, and discounted, as a “children’s novel.” However, it is unlike most children’s novels, especially those written since the advent of political correctness. In the first few pages of the book, Travis tries to beat his baby brother (Little Arliss) with a switch, tries to kick Old Yeller, hits the dog with a rock and shoots a deer. There is a bullfight that the family watches together for entertainment. It is not today’s children’s novel and is a better book for it.
Fred Gipson grew up in rural Texas in the early 20th century, was born and raised on a farm, had a variety of farming and ranching jobs before becoming a newspaper journalist and author, and had a family dog, Rattler, who was the inspiration for “Old Yeller.” So when Gipson wrote “Old Yeller,” along with its sequels, “Savage Sam” and “Little Arliss” (which was discovered and published after Gipson’s death), he was writing about what he knew, what he lived.
Though Gipson considered “Old Yeller” his best work, and it was certainly his best known, he had several other Western books that did quite well and were made into movies, including “The Home Place,” “Savage Sam” and “Little Arliss.”
I was almost 60 years old before I read “Old Yeller.” My mom was a sensitive soul and wanted to protect her kids as much as she could. Part of that protection extended to not wanting us to watch or read “Old Yeller.” I was born in 1957, the year after the novel was published and the year Disney released the film. From the time I was old enough to remember, I knew the ending of the movie (and the book), as we all did then and most of us still do — so I avoided them my entire life. It was never a ‘thing” — it just kind of happened.
Even though I knew what to expect (and even if I hadn’t, it was certainly foreshadowed throughout the book), the end was still shocking and sad. But I’m glad I finally read it.
Because the ending is so well known and such a cultural touchstone for the baby boomer generation, it is often referred to in movies and television shows. The television show “Friends” has an episode named “The One Where Old Yeller Dies” and an episode of “Breaking Bad,” titled “Rabid Dog,” uses the movie to explain a killing. In the movie “Stripes,” Bill Murray does an “Old Yeller” monologue.