I recently came across a copy of Fed Gipson’s Old Yeller. Suddenly I was a 10-year-old boy again. It was a Sunday in 1959, Salem Church of Christ, Shepherdsville, Kentucky.
Sunday School booklets featured cartoonish illustrations of burning bushes, arks teetering with their teeming horde, boys with slings near fallen giants, robed men in sandals confronting devouring lions. My father sat outside in the Ford parked under the shade tree, smoking, listening to the car radio, maybe his favorite Hank Williams’ “Kaw-Liga,” waiting for the sermon and final invitation song “Just as I Am” to end. But the rest of us — my mother, younger brother, baby sister and I — listened as the preacher droned on about confession, repentance and baptism in order to be saved. Give your heart to Jesus now.
While the sermon and songs urged us to look inside our dark hearts and make amends — and best make them fast — my attention instead was on the paperback novel in my lap. My mother actually permitted me to take a book with me to church that day, as long as I sat quietly and did not read during prayer. Instead of holy writ with its stories of godly Timothy and perfectionist Paul, I read Old Yeller.
This book mesmerized me by its story of young Travis and his life on a ranch in pre-Civil War Texas. He's a boy my own age whose father is away from home on a cattle drive. So Travis has to contend with wild hogs, abandoned dogs, she-bears and rabid wolves, all on his own. I certainly had experienced nothing like that as my life was more school and church than ranch, more books and Bible than cattle. But I did know something about an absentee father.
So I read. Lots. At home, at school, in the car, on the bus and at church, rabid — in my own way — for books. I devoured Old Yeller, begging to take it with me to church on this Sunday morning because I was nearing the end and wanted simply to keep reading. I turned page after page as Travis confronts the harsh reality of Old Yeller’s being bitten by a rabid wolf and turning into a mad, slobbering dog.The dog has to be killed. And Travis has to do it.
I was not prepared for this unbelievable turn of events. I just had not connected all the plot points leading to this inevitable moment. When I came to the passage where Travis actually shoots his beloved dog, I was shocked, yelped out loud, and burst into tears, sobbing.
Maybe the congregation thought it was my public conversion moment, when I finally gave up my sinful, little-boy soul for Jesus. For sure, it was a conversion, though not likely the kind they might have wanted for me. It was as if Jesus himself were showing me the power of a book and its narrative arc. Outside myself, he and I together looked down and saw the church, the preacher, my family in the pew, the songbooks in the racks, the paperback in my lap, and Travis and Old Yeller, all swirled together in a surreal concoction where children grow up, adults let you down, and rabid dogs have to be killed.
Ben Wiley, one of our Creative Loafing film reviewers, is also an advocate for paper and print. Dead trees, if you will. He volunteers at a local library bookstore and enjoys engaging with readers and their books. Our series BookStories will highlight some of these Ben, Book & Beyond encounters.