Summer of the Monkeys

By Wilson Rawls (1976)

Wilson Rawls is perhaps most famous for his heart-warming tearjerker, Where the Red Fern Grows (1961). But it is his second novel, Summer of the Monkeys (1976), that was made into a Disney movie. Skip the movie. Read the book.

Rawls grew up in Indian Territory of the Ozark Mountains (which encompass four states west of the Mississippi). Is is said that he first told his stories to his own blue tick hound.

The culture of that childhood come ringingly clear in the beautiful, well-told Summer of the Monkeys.

Rawls gives us a strong and winning protagonist, young Jay Berry Lee, who wants to spend most of his time hunting with his beloved hound, Rowdy. But he must also do his chores, mind his mother, and help his sister, Daisy. Sometimes he even has to help tend his grandfather’s general store in town.

Rawls evokes the aura and ethos of late 19th century frontier America with a light, accessible, effective touch. Jay Berry spends his time outside. He doesn’t love reading books like his sister, Daisy. He uses words like ‘jasper.’

But Jay Berry will also feel just like any other kid to contemporary readers. He complains readily – “Aw, Daisy!” “Aw, Mama!” “Aw, Rowdy!” [“Aw, Rowdy!” became a familiar and understood refrain when I read it with my son.]

There is a strong story, too. Jay Berry discovers some anomalous monkeys in the river bottoms. (They’re circus monkeys escaped from a train.) He spends the bulk of the book scheming with his helpful, avuncular Grandpa trying to figure out how to catch those monkeys. Mostly he gets his comeuppance – which makes for some high drama and a lot of humor.

But Jay Berry isn’t really selfish. He cares about all those other people in his life. They are part of his world and seeing him balance what he wants to do with the things he knows he is supposed to do ought to have a salutary effect on contemporary readers.

Wilson Rawls’s prose is absolutely beautiful. Whether is he moving the story, or writing dialogue, or briefly sketching scenes of nature, it all goes down quick and easy, like a smooth draw of milk. Sometimes it comes from back country metaphors: “It was so still, you could hear a grasshopper walking.” And sometimes it’s more pointed when Rawls wants you to hear and see and smell the flora and fauna of the Ozarks. When the dogwoods (“the Ozarks’ most beautiful flower”) are in full bloom, Jay Berry discovers them like this: “Here and there on the long sloping hillside, milky white splotches stood out like spilt buckets of milk in the deep green.”

We are very proud to add this special book to the Read to Them canon and suggest it for One School, One Book and One District, One Book.