Jim Kjelgaard employs a clear and direct style to tell his story. He brings the many scenes of nature to life through the use of precise and apt nouns and modifiers. His language appeals to the senses: “Crisp, frost-curled leaves crackled underfoot when they entered the beech woods.” Kjelgaard saves more elaborate figures of speech to lend color to the often-idiomatic dialogue, especially the lines spoken by Ross, and to emphasize the key thoughts and feelings of the characters. For example, he writes at one point that, to Danny, Mr. Haggin’s estate—and by implication Danny’s dream of owning a dog like Red—was “like a mirage . . . unattainable as the moon.”
The basic theme of the book is Danny’s coming-of-age, which Kjelgaard explores in three ways: Danny’s relationship with his father, Danny’s ability to survive in the world of the Wintapi, and his ability to move beyond that world and prosper in the new world offered by Mr. Haggin.
Danny has a close, interdependent relationship with his father at the beginning of the book; they work as a team. When necessary, they consult on what jobs have to be done and who should do them, but often each simply sees what has to be done and does it—whether it is cooking breakfast or felling trees for firewood. In addition to the great love that they feel for each other, Danny respects his father’s judgment in general and his knowledge of the woods in particular. In turn, Ross respects Danny, who under his tutelage has turned into an able woodsman in his own right. Ross does not try to impose his will on the young man; even when he disagrees with Danny, Ross lets him make his own choices.
When Danny meets Red, this relationship is tested. Danny sees in Red something more than he has ever seen in the hounds that his father has raised, and he instinctively knows that Red should not be trained the way in which...
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Big Red, Jim Kjelgaard’s third novel, was published in April, 1945, by Holiday House, with illustrations by Bob Kuhn. In writing the book, Kjelgaard made use of his own experiences as a woodsman and a lover of Irish setters. The book has been enduringly popular, with a paperback edition published by Scholastic Book Services that was widely available to schoolchildren in the 1960’s. By the 1990’s, the hardcover was still in print and Bantam’s trade paperback edition had more than twenty-five printings. Big Red earned for Kjelgaard an award from the Boys Club of America. Among his many other books about dogs, other animals, young men, and the outdoors are two more about Irish setters, both featuring sons of Red. In Irish Red (1951), the future of Danny, Ross, and the dogs depends on the least promising of Red and Sheilah’s pups. In Outlaw Red (1953), a troubled young man forms a close bond with another of Red and Sheilah’s offspring, but these two find themselves on the wrong side of the law.
In 1962, the Disney Studios released a film version of Big Red, directed by Norman Tokar from a script by Louis Pelletier. Although entertaining, the film has a different plot from the book. In the film, the story takes place in Quebec and is cast in the form of Red’s escape from being sold and his quest to return to the young boy he loves.