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). It is said that he first told his stories to his own blue tick hound. The culture of that childhood come through crystal clear in the beautiful, well-told Summer of the Monkeys.
Rawls gives us a 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 helps his beloved grandfather tend the general store in town. Despite the historical setting, Jay Berry will feel just like any other kid to contemporary readers. He’d rather play than do chores, and he gets frustrated when he feels misunderstood by his family. He has a big heart and cares deeply about his family – especially Daisy. Seeing him balance what he wants to do with the things he knows he is supposed to do will ring true in any era.
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 and claim the reward. Mostly he gets his comeuppance, which makes for some high drama and a lot of humor.
Wilson Rawls’s prose is refreshing, lovely without being overdone. Whether is he moving the story, or writing dialogue, or briefly sketching scenes of nature, it all flows beautifully. His descriptions sit neatly in the Ozark setting, like when Jay Berry comments, “…it got so still around there you could have heard a grasshopper walking.” Or, when describing the dogwood blooms, “Here and there on the long sloping hillside, milky white splotches stood out like spilt buckets of milk in the deep green.”
So invite your students and families to step into the woods and back in time with Jay Berry, Rowdy, and that “jasper” of a monkey that eludes their grasp. It might be the perfect answer to our modern times.