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Wilson Rawls

11/02/2009 13:47




Wilson Rawls was born on September 24, 1913, in Scraper, Oklahoma to Minzy and Winnie (Hatfield) Rawls.He grew up on a farm in the Ozark Mountains.

Since there were no schools in the area, Rawls’ mother taught Wilson and his sisters how to read and write. Rawls’ grandmother would order books for his mother and she used these books to teach the children how to read. He was about ten years old when he decided that he wanted to become a writer (Holtze, 1989). Rawls’ father told him that he would need an education to become a writer. So, Rawls decided to educate himself by reading various books. He developed an appreciation for different types of writing, and his passion for reading remained with him throughout his life. Rawls started writing by describing the places and surroundings of his home. The first writings by Rawls were scribbled in the dust of the country roads and the sand banks along the river where he lived (Holtze, 1989). In 1928, his family moved to Elkview, West Virginia, and Rawls attended junior high in Muskogee until he was forced to leave when the Great Depression came.


When Rawls was about fifteen, the Depression hit the country and his family left Oklahoma, bound for California. However, the family car broke down just outside Albuquerque, New Mexico where Rawls’ father found a job. During the 1930s and 1940s, Rawls became a carpenter and traveled to South America, Canada, and Alaska working on construction sites. As he traveled, he began writing and wrote five manuscripts including Where the Red Fern Grows. Due to his lack of a formal education, Rawls’ manuscripts had many spelling and grammar errors. Because of the errors, he did not show the manuscripts to anyone, and kept them hidden in an old trunk in his father’s workshop. In the late 1950s, Rawls was working for a construction company on a guided missile range in the Southwest. The construction company had a contract at the Atomic Energy Commission’s site west of Idaho Falls. Rawls was transferred to this area and lived in a cabin in the Mud Lake area. This is where he met his future wife, Sophie Ann Styczinski. Sophie was a budget analyst for the Atomic Energy Commission. The couple was married on August 23, 1958 .


Just before Rawls married, he made a trip to his parents’ home and burned all his manuscripts. He was ashamed of his work and decided to forget his dream of becoming a writer. Unable to forget about his dream of becoming a writer, he later confessed to his wife about his burned manuscripts. Sophie encouraged Rawls to rewrite one of his stories.Rawls rewrote Where the Red Fern Grows in three weeks. When he was done, he gave the manuscript to Sophie for her to read. He waited hours before calling to hear her opinion, fearing that she would not approve. Her response was, “Woody, this is marvelous. Come home and work on it some more and we’ll send it to a publisher” . Since Sophie had a formal education, she undertook the job of editing the book before sending it to publisher. The Saturday Evening Post purchased the rights to Where the Red Fern Grows and printed it in serial form under the name “Hounds of Youth.” Doubleday printed Where the Red Fern Grows as a book in 1961 (Holtze, 1989). At first, the book sold slowly because it was marketed as an adult novel. When teachers and students read it, they began a word-of-mouth publicity campaign in the late 1960s that boosted sales of the novel (Trelease, 2002). When Where the Red Fern Grows became a success, Doubleday started booking speaking engagements for Rawls in schools across the United States. Rawls commented,"I always take my second original manuscript of Where the Red Fern Grows to show the youngsters. I want to stress to them how important it is to learn to spell, punctuate, and mainly how important it is for them to stay in school. They always look at the manuscript in disbelief. I hope I have some effect on these youngsters, I so enjoy each and every one of them (Childhood …, 1997)."


Even though Rawls’ novels received much praise, he was perhaps most influential as a motivational speaker. Rawls visited 2,000 schools in twenty-two states before being diagnosed with cancer in 1983 (Holtze, 1989). Although Rawls and his wife had one child named Alex Smith, he felt that he had many children in his fans. He once commented,"Children are always asking me what advice I can give them on trying to be a writer. I always tell them to do a lot of reading, read and study creative writing, then start writing and keep writing. Someday they will make it if they don’t give up (Woodrow…, 2004)."

Wilson Rawls was living proof that dreams can come true. As a young boy, he wanted to write a story like The Call of the Wild.Before his death, on December 16, 1984, Rawls only had one regret. It was that he could not take a copy of his book to his father and say, “It took a long time Dad, but I made it”.[2]


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