In my search for ‘books high schoolers pick for bill reports’, I found out about Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner. I thought it was a Newberry award winner (but it’s not) and it’s really more of a fifth grade or middle school book. But I read it anyway.
Okay. It’s a famous childrens book with a dog on cover. It’s better than even money that the dog is going to die. And she does. So, since you can automatically guess how it ends, is it worth reading?
Short answer, more than I expected.
Synopsis: Willy and his grandfather will lose the farm if they don’t pay off the back taxes. The only way Willy can earn the money is by winning a dogsled race. His beloved dog Search Light dies right at the finish line. However, the titular Stone Fox, legend of dog sled races, holds off the other racers so Willy can carry the late Search Light over the finish line.
First of all, this is a short and Hemingway minimalist book. It is 90% show and only 10% tell. It is impressively razer focused. While there are things Willy struggles to understand, it doesn’t talk down to the readers.
Second, it is very grounded. The story lays out the situation so we can actually buy an 11-year-old boy winning a dog-sled race with one dog. It’s not a thosand mile Iditarod. It’s ten-mile race and one Willy and Search Ligjt ran on a daily basis and already knew well. And Willy’s big trick of crossing a frozen pond as a short cut is believable and something he cleared with the officials first.
Third, man, does Gardiner develop the relationship between boy and dog well. And almost entirely through showing. He describes Willy and Search Light working and playing together constantly.
So, the ending hits hard. And there’s no falling action. The last sentence is Willy carrying Search Light over the finish line. Razer thin minimalism.
The question I kept asking is why the book isn’t named Search Light? Stone Fox is Willy’s main competition, a neigh mythic sled dog driver- oh. That’s the answer.
Stone Fox, a Native American who is using prize money from races to buy back land treaties took away and is undefeated, is a legendary figure. He is larger than life, outside the scope of Willy and Search Light’s world. And he can be mean, punching Willy hard enough to close his eye for getting too close to his dogs.
So, when this mythic figure not only helps Willy but also honors Search Light’s sacrifice, it elevates both of them. Stone Fox is the gate keeper who lets them become legends as well. Cool trick when the book is so grounded.
Stone Fox is a tiny little book that has an old chestnut for a plot. But it is written so well that it works.
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