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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 777

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 the hounds were. Danny rejects his father’s suggestion to “give him a lickin’” and resists his idea that Red will make a great dog for chasing assorted “varmints.” This causes a rift between the two proud, stubborn men, even though Ross always believed that Danny, who takes after his late mother in many ways, had it in him to find contentment in a life other than that of a trapper. Danny does not want to hurt his father’s feelings, but he cannot let himself stray from the new path that he has found. His friendship with Red is deep and rewarding, and Mr. Haggin’s spirited description of the deeper meaning of the seemingly trivial dog show gives Danny a glimpse of a future in which he can apply his natural abilities to something creative and enduring, that future generations might look to and build upon: the breeding of fine Irish setters.

Danny’s rite of passage involves using the skills that his father has taught him, his own intelligence and courage, and the qualities that he has been able to nurture in Red to do what even Ross was unable to accomplish, and what nearly costs Ross his life: bring Old Majesty to bay. In the final encounter, something that Danny always feared happens: Red is injured badly enough to ruin him forever as a show dog. Yet, having mastered the world of the wilderness, Danny now feels ready to try his way in another world. He accepts full responsibility for the damage to Red and vows to pay Mr. Haggin every cent of the $7,000 that the dog is worth. Before, the amount “was an unheard-of sum to one who knew triumph when he captured a seventy-five cent skunk or weasel pelt.” Now, he has “cast off the old shackles” and feels that “if others could do big things, so could he.”

Another significant aspect of the novel is the substantial amount of lore that Kjelgaard presents about hunting, tracking, fishing, and trapping. He also depicts both the beauty of nature and its role as an adversary that can test a person’s mettle. A strong sense of community is portrayed in the novel, both in the sense of neighbor helping neighbor and in the sense of citizens obeying laws, such as game laws, intended for the common good. The novel has a male-dominated atmosphere; the only human female character is a flighty friend of Mr. Haggin’s who has the men so cowed that she almost takes Red away as her plaything until Red runs afoul of a skunk, which is too much for her “delicate” nature.

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Critical Context