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Old Yeller and Adolescence

In: Social Issues

Submitted By ldhkah
Words 1908
Pages 8
Written Assignment 4.1: Old Yeller
Lisa Hannigan
The Chicago School of Professional Psychology

When people think of the book or the movie, Old Yeller is a great book (and movie) that is often thought of as a story about the bond a boy and his dog, a common topic in many TV shows and books, like Lassie. However, Old Yeller, as it turns out, proves to be much more than that; it is a true coming-of-age story. At 14 years old, Travis Coates lives with his mother and little brother, Arliss, in the hill country of Texas during the 1860s when his father must leave home to work on a cattle drive. He leaves Travis to “act a man’s part” and take care of the family. While working in a cornfield one day, Travis come across Old Yeller and tries to drive him away, but his younger brother, Arliss likes Old Yeller and stands up for him to Travis. When Old Yeller saves Arliss from a black bear, he wins the affection of the family, especially Travis with whom he forms a strong bond. Later on, the family notices signs of rabies in their cow, Spot. As a precaution, Old Yeller must be put in a pen as a precaution in case he develops any signs of rabies. By this time, the reader (or moviegoer) has formed such a strong bond with Old Yeller, that, when Old Yeller does get rabies, Travis is forced to shoot him to end his suffering and learns firsthand one of the most difficult virtues of true manhood-- sacrifice.
Keywords: bond, manhood, family, love, sacrifice.

Most people remember Old Yeller as a boy-and-his-dog story, including me when I sat down to watch the movie with my 5-year-old son. Since we both love dogs, and he was a boy, I thought it would keep him occupied for a couple of hours. I mean, it was a Disney movie, how much of an impact could it have? While I intended to get some work done around the house, I found myself caught up in the movie and wound up crying harder than my son did at the end when Travis has to shoot Old Yeller. Since I had already seen the movie, this time around I chose to read the book. Intellectually I understand that it is fictional and I know the entire book; however, emotionally my heart overrode my intellect and I found myself emotional most of the weekend, and the two dogs I have now were spoiled and loved tenfold as a result.
Similar to Travis, having a dog taught my son some valuable lessons as well—responsibility as well as compassion when our first dog had to be euthanized. He was 16 years old at the time, only two years older than Travis, and thought he could help the vet who came to the house to put Benji down because he knew how emotional I get when it comes to animals, especially dogs. I had invited an old boyfriend over to say goodbye to Benji as well. Thank goodness he wanted to be there because Kyle and I ran inside the house, in the kitchen (away from any windows that would make the euthanasia visible to us) because the two of us wound up being no help at all. We stood in the middle of the kitchen sobbing while the deed was being done. I had to get ahold of myself and be the strong one to help him face this first step into manhood, much like Travis, in Old Yeller, had to face many obstacles which turned out to be steps into manhood. When our second dog died earlier this year, at 28 my son did the same for me. He had become a man. I could not have faced euthanizing Frankie without his help.
While the relationship between a boy and his dog is a persistent theme in children’s as well as American culture (Tribunella 2010 p. xxxii, Old Yeller is not merely a boy-and his dog story, but also a dramatic expression of the meaning of adulthood as well as a believable depiction of what life must have truly must have been like in the 1860’s. Set on a settlement on the edge of civilization, the novel tells the story of Travis and his family and their day-to-day lives on their farm. The description of that time period makes it very appealing to read besides the connection beyond Old Yeller and Travis, the 14-year-old boy who forms an unbreakable bond with him.
Old Yeller does not romanticize America like many books and movies depicting that time period. It is a classic not just because of Old Yeller and Travis, but also because of its unpretentious and unsentimental attitude about life on the American frontier. Little things mentioned, like making soap, hanging meat, branding hogs, plowing fields, living life on a settlement, and the extent to which families had to go to survive, add much to Old Yeller. In addition, the characters portrayed in the book are depicted in a way that captures the reader’s attention and paint a picture of a way of life that is long gone. The author, Fred Gipson’s ability to reawaken so distinctly after almost 100 years, is certainly a testament to his ability as a writer.
In Old Yeller, Gipson skillfully creates believable characters woven into an exciting plot in which wild bulls crash into a family's cabin, a bear nearly kills a young boy, and a wolf attacks a dog. Even though the teenage young readers of today’s world would not have the same dramatic events unfold in their modern lives, anyone can easily empathize with Travis Coates, the novel's 14-year-old protagonist (main character) as he reacts to these experiences.
The major theme in Old Yeller is the meaning of adulthood. When Papa is forced to leave the family to fend for themselves so that he can go on a cattle drive, he tells Travis to "be the man of the family", something many fathers say to their sons when they have to be away for an extended period of time. In other words, his father is telling him to do what needs to be done before his mother tells him to, like a grown man. However, not many modern-day 14-year-olds are faced with the predicaments Travis and his family find themselves in, many of which would be daunting even for a fully grown adult, let alone a 14-year-old, including saving his brother, Arliss, from a bear, fending off “varmints” (raccoons) which are eating the family's crops, being attacked by wild hogs, and being attacked by a pack of wild boars and a rabid wolf threatens Mama and Lisbeth, a girl from a neighboring farm. According to Berk, information-processing researchers believe that “a variety of specific mechanisms underlie cognitive gains in adolescence, such as improved attention, inhibition, strategies, knowledge, metacognition, cognitive self-regulation, speed of thinking and processing capacity” (2014 p. 399). In order to take on the role of “man of the house”, Travis relied on these cognitive abilities to keep his brother, mother, and himself safe in a pioneer settlement in Salt Licks, Texas, which is on the outskirts of civilization and quite dangerous with wild hogs, wolves, rattlesnakes, and other dangers.
Old Yeller starts with Travis still mourning the loss of his dog, Bell, who died from a rattlesnake bite. He does not want a dog because the grief he felt when Bell died was too overwhelming. So when Old Yeller shows up only to eat meat hanging that is meant for the family, Travis does not have any use for him. In fact, he actually tries to drive him away by kicking him. His little brother, Arliss starts petting the dog and they end up keeping the dog and naming him Old Yeller. Although Travis starts off hating Old Yeller, his feelings soon change when Old Yeller saves Arliss from the aforementioned bear. Together they mark hogs, hunt, and get the stubborn cow Spot to milk. Travis and Old Yeller bond at night when they defend the cornfield from varmints.
Travis, as a 14-year-old boy, is eager to take on the responsibilities of a man. While there are many aspects of his character that remain childlike and sometimes even childish, there are many traits that indicate a real desire on his part to be a mature, responsible, and effective “man of the house.” His father’s absence gives him the autonomy he would not ordinarily have, yet, at the same time, he realizes that his mother is there for him, should he need it. While there are times when Travis does act like “the man of the house”, there, too, are times when Travis goes from taking on manly duties to just being a boy. Adolescence is a transition between childhood and adulthood, so this is not surprising. While early researchers viewed adolescence as “either a biologically determined period of storm and stress or entirely influenced by the social environment, contemporary researchers view adolescence as a joint project of biological, psychological and social forces” (Berk 2014 p.397). Travis certainly had a lot of social forces to contend with, yet there were times in the book when he and Old Yeller are just a boy and his dog.
Old Yeller, in his own way, significantly contributes in aiding Travis navigate between the two roles. In some ways, Old Yeller lets Travis be a typical boy in a boy-and-his dog way, but he also contributes to Travis taking on more demanding responsibilities such as performing strenuous jobs like defending the cornfield from the raccoons, marking the hogs, and so on. He empowers Travis to a great extent, which is what makes it so difficult when Travis is forced to kill Old Yeller and, ultimately, take the final step into adulthood.
Travis is a boy who understands, unlike many 14-year-old boys of the 21st century, what it takes to be a man. Whether it is assuming responsibility for his family, taking on his father’s roles, pushing himself, and, finally, making the ultimate sacrifice, Travis proves he has what it takes to be a man.

Travis is neither a romantic nor silly. He is a boy who understands that to be a man, he must be willing to push himself, assume responsibility, and above all make sacrifices. That he sacrifices in the end his friend and helpmate Old Yeller for the good of the family is proof that Travis has what it takes. Perhaps it is his example that has kept readers coming back to Gipson’s classic for years and years.
Hoping to escape sorrow once more, Travis wants nothing to do with Yeller's pup. Travis's father, just back from the cattle drive, explains that he should not cut himself off from life to escape sorrow: "A part of the time, [life is] mighty good. And a man can't afford to waste all the good part, worrying about the bad parts." When Travis understands his father's point and commits himself to loving Old Yeller's pup, he finally reaches adulthood.

Possible References
Tribunella, E. L. (2010). Melancholia and maturation: The use of trauma in American children's literature. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

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