Sad Endings versus Happy Endings

Behind ever writer, there is a reader. These readers are devoted, hopeful, and imaginative. Not all readers are writers, but I don’t believe there are any writers who aren’t also readers. When you read, you start off small. Picture books, Dr. Suess, Religious studies appropriate to your age and you move up. Perhaps through your library or parents or other relatives. I found books through all these venues, as well as neighbors and friends. Then, there are the books you read in school.

I remember, to the minute, where I was when I first read Where the Red Fern Grows. On one of my twin beds, sitting against the wall, curled around Mr. Bear.

I was ten and it was the FIRST TIME a teacher had ever let us bring a reading book home. It was a new paperback, which I rarely got. Before Where the Red Fern Grows, most of my books were library books. I read at least 2 a day at that age so there was no sane way to keep me in reading material without the library. I remember how excited I was to finally start reading with a group. Reading was a very solitary activity, something I did when I was home. I’d sit quietly for hours, absorbed in these other places and around other people. All my stories had happy endings. The princess found the prince. The scared and shy girl found her friends. The boxcar children got an uncle, Nancy solved the case, Sparhawk the paladin knight saved the kingdom, Bilbo helped slay the dragon, and the monster was always slain. I almost never talked about these books with other people. And if you counted what we read in class, it was usually some excerpt from a bigger book. (I made it a habit to try and hunt down the bigger book in the library and read it. Excepts were for babies.) Finally, here I was, a REAL grown up person because I got to take home my own book and read it.

We were only suppose to read a few chapters a week. The book was meant to last the whole 9 week grading period for my teacher’s curriculum. The monday that it had been handed out, I went straight home, ignored my math homework, and read it all the way through.

I was excited for the hero as he saved up all his money and with such care and work, ordered his two coon hounds. I ran with him through the woods as he trained and fed them. In my head, I pictured Baxtor and Ginger, my grandmother’s dogs, who resembled the dogs in the story. I was so excited when he’d gotten to the hunting competition.

And then….

Well. Let’s be honest. You never trust a school assignment with an animal on the cover.

Because of course, those dogs died. And it wasn’t like Old Yeller, which I’d seen as a child on Disney where the dog is shot in the end and there is sweeping music and a crying actor. This wasn’t ANYTHING like that for me. Old Yeller was, Duh, an actor dog. My nine-year old brain didn’t connect the clearly fictional movie death of Old Yeller to anything like the anguish I felt when Billy loses Big Dan and Little Ann.

I went to my teacher the next day, threw the book on her desk and told her that it was the worst book I’d ever read. She was startled that I’d already finished reading it and asked me not to spoil the horrible-no-good-extremely-terrible ending for any of my classmates.

I sulkily agreed and then spent the rest of the period that we had to read the book with library books instead.

I went through middle school and high school with a dull anger towards these sorts of endings. I endured The OutsidersDeath of a Salesman, The Crucible and of course Romeo and Juliet. These works were rife with sad endings. I began to hate the reading that I was assigned in school. Everything I’d been taught was based around sorrow, loss and death. In Of Mice and Men, when George mercy-kills Lennie, I was so tired of school literature that I made it a habit to sparknote anything I read just to check for the ending before I had to read it. I’d still read the book, but only after I’d prepared myself for the end.

And then, thank goodness, there was college.

Now, college is also full of sad endings in a book. But unlike high school where all you do is talk conflict, theme and

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