My son mentioned in passing that he loved the book he was reading in school so much that he started it over as soon as he was done. Of course I had to know what this wonderful book was, and thus I first heard about Stone Fox.
What’s interesting is that if you described a stereotypical book designed for the stereotypical boy, it would be this. It’s a ten-chapter book, so mostly for younger readers, and it has charcoal sketches throughout. It’s about little Willy and his best friend Searchlight—his dog who is as old as he is, so they’ve been friends all their lives. Little Willy lives with Grandfather on their potato farm in Wyoming. Then one morning Grandfather won’t get out of bed and won’t talk. The doctor says he’s just sick in his mind, but that it’s a disease as deadly as any. Little Willy finally figures out that Grandfather is way behind on the taxes, and they might have to sell the farm. He figures that if he can come up with the money, Grandfather will be ok again, so he enters a sled race with Searchlight. However, it turns out that Stone Fox—an Indian who has never lost a race—has entered. Can little Willy and Searchlight win the money and save the farm?
Seriously, how many boys and their dogs stories are out there? They’re pretty much their own genre, and I’ll admit I’d dismissed it as cliché. And yet my own boy loves this book, so perhaps there’s something to it.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Just like most boys and their dogs stories, the dog can’t possibly survive. Very abruptly—with no warning for little Willy or the reader—Searchlight’s heart bursts just as she’s nearing the finish line of the race and she’s dead. That’s it.
To a great extent, this is necessary both for the genre and for the point of the novel—after Searchlight gives her all but it just isn’t enough, Stone Fox stops his own dogs and prevents other racers from crossing the line. Little Willy picks up Searchlight’s body and carries her across the finish line, winning the race and saving the farm. End of book.
Holy smokes, that was abrupt.
Stone Fox—our title character—plays a remarkably small role in the book. He’s an odd character. He doesn’t speak at all until he threatens the other racers with a rifle if they dare cross the finish line. He’s a Shoshone who is saving up his race winnings to buy back Native American lands, so he’s motived by more than greed. However, when little Willy comes near his dogs, Stone Fox hits little Willy hard enough in the eye that it’s all swollen during the race. My son’s take on it is that he’s kind of a jerk until he sacrifices the money to let Willy win, probably because of Searchlight’s sacrifice.
I don’t know what to make of Grandfather. He appears to suffer from severe and debilitating depression. I suppose this is one way to put little Willy on his own without actually killing off his only parental figure. But he essentially abandons little Willy, leaving him to harvest all the potatoes, run the household, and everything else, all because Grandfather made some terrible decisions along the way. And then his recovery seems very sudden—when little Willy and Searchlight are racing, he sees Grandfather at the window, which apparently means he’s all better.
The background on Grandfather was enough for my son to really like him. He says that before his illness Grandfather is all the things it would be good for a grandfather to be.
There’s a quick lesson on why taxes are annoying but useful—of course no one wants to pay them, but Doc Smith, who kind of looks out for little Willy while Grandfather is ill, helps him realize that they pay for services that would take care of Grandfather even if little Willy wasn’t there to watch over him.
Little Willy’s strength and determination are pretty amazing. Every grownup stands in his way in one way or another, but he perseveres. Most of the grownups are kind of awful. Several smoke, and they have yellow teeth and drop ash all over the place. The town drunk is mentioned in passing several times (although I had to explain to my son what a town drunk is).
Doc Smith is a woman, something that is simply a fact and not at all remarked upon as unusual. She’s the most sympathetic adult in the whole book, although she says Grandfather is as good as dead and discourages little Willy from trying to save him. Searchlight is also female, yet she’s strong, fast, and ferociously protective.
Well, my 9 year old boy loved this book, so that’s a pretty strong recommendation. He wasn’t thrilled with Searchlight’s abrupt death, but he kind of understood why it needed to happen within the story. He liked that the story is full of adventure, and he liked the relationship between little Willy and his grandfather, before the depression took hold. He would have liked more detail about the other racers (and I assume the situation in general) but obviously it didn’t hinder his enjoyment of the story much.
I can’t say I’d have suggested this to him, but I guess that’s why I’m grateful other people help him choose books sometimes. This is probably appropriate for ages 8 to 11, and it’s good for reluctant readers.
Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner
Published in 1980 by Harper Trophy
Read a copy borrowed from my son’s classroom