Summer of the Monkeys

Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls

I love this book. I bet you would love it too.

It is about a boy, Jay Barry, who tries to catch a troop of monkeys which were accidentally released in the river bottoms of Missouri around the 1910’s. It is about a boy’s experiences in nature and life in his family.

I love it because it is fun to read and has a rare sweetness. It is what I hope childhood could be for our kids. The story is sweet and engaging and filled with rich and imaginative language. It teaches us about physical disabilities and self-sacrifice. I love how the father and grandfather are sources for wisdom and faith, though religion is not a major theme in the story.

If you liked To Kill a Mockingbird, The Trumpet of the Swan, or The Other Side of the Mountain, you would probably enjoy this book too.

As we read the book together, several ideas came naturally into our homeschool. Here are a few of them.

Similes and Metaphors

This book has very colorful descriptions that help us imagine the situations Jay Barry gets into. Here are some examples.

“His deep voice made the tin cans dance on the shelves.” page 33

Talking about the largeness of the monkey’s mouth, “To me, it looked as if you could have thrown a pumpkin straight down his throat and never scratched the peeling on one of his long teeth.” page 55

Grandpa “laughed so hard that great big tears boiled out of his eyes and ran all over his face.” page 154

“I was awakened by an earth-jarring clap of thunder that all but turned my bed over.” page 191

“Every nerve in my body was twanging like the ‘e’ string on a fiddler’s fiddle.” page 108

Wilson Rawls, Summer of the Monkeys

While we were reading, I liked to point out and underline my favorite descriptions (some of which are similes). I asked things like, “Wow! Can you imagine a voice so loud that it made cans dance on the store shelves? Do you know anyone with a voice that loud?”

After we read the storm chapter (chapter 13), we spent some time writing our own similes. I read some of my favorite similes and metaphors that we underlined and we talked about how the language paints a picture in our minds. Then we wrote some similes about a rainbow, using as many descriptive words as possible, with this worksheet below (except ours was a hand-drawn and much sloppier version, ha ha). They also colored the words in.

Download a copy of this below.

This would be a great time to talk about the difference between similes and metaphors, and possibly read the book Stubborn as a Mule to reinforce similes.

Wilson Rawls’ Story

From a speech he often gave around the country, recorded while he was alive, and then published on YouTube by Jim Trealease. You can hear the speech in the 5-part videos below.

Wilson Rawls, the author of The Summer of the Monkeys grew up in on a little farm in Oklahoma in a house with 5 sisters. His best friend was an old dog named Rowdy and he was interested in the outdoors, in hunting and fishing. His mama taught them at home during the winter using small black boards. When he was 9 years old, the community built a school across the river from his home. Mothers took turns teaching kids in the schoolhouse. The Rawls children traveled to school using a rope to help them out of the mud.

His grandma ran the local store and was an educated lady. Grandma ordered books for their family and mama read them to us. Rawls liked stories that had animals in them. Most of the books were fairy tales that appealed to girls, but not to him. One day, Mama got The Call of the Wild by Jack London. She read part of it that evening and he cried and begged for her to read more of the story. It was his favorite one of all. Once she read the story to the family, she gave the book to him. He used to take his old blue tic hound down to the river bottoms and “set him down in front of the tree, and, with a book in one hand and a stick in the other hand, I bet I read that story to that old hound 100 times. I didn’t have anyone else to read to or talk to. The heck of it was that I wouldn’t let Rowdy lay down and read. He had to sit up and listen. That’s why I kept that stick.”

He thought it would be wonderful to write a story like The Call of the WIld. He asked his Papa if he thought he could write a book. Papa said he would need some kind of education to write a book. He told his dad that one day he would write a book about a dog for boys about his age. His Papa said that if he really wanted to do it, and if he didn’t give up, he could do it.

He would find a flat piece of sand and a stick. “Anything I could hear, I would try to describe in words what I’d heard, the scream of a red tailed hawk, the cloying of a crow, churring of the squirrels, the mooing of an old milk cow in the evening. Anything I could hear. That was my first writing.”

During the depression, they moved into a little house next to the railroad track. The train was loaded with hobos. He used to go to listen to their stories from across the country. He decided to leave home around age 17 or 18 because it was hard for the family to feed all the children. He said “It was a very sad day in my life and I was the only one who ever left home.”

For three years, he traveled around this country looking for work. “I realized that I was a loner. To this day, I am still a loner. It was because I grew up without any boys around. I don’t like to go to dances or parties.” No boy should grow up like that. They should have a friend or a buddy.

During these three years, he kept writing. He never quit. He couldn’t afford paper, but would take brown paper sacks and write all over them. He would tie the bundles of paper with a string. He was ashamed of the stories because of the spelling and the writing. “Wherever my voice broke, there was a dash.” There were no paragraphs or punctuation. He wouldn’t let anyone look at anything he wrote because he was embarrassed, but he also would never throw them away.

His family left Oklahoma for California and, while traveling, their car broke down in New Mexico, which ended up being a great thing for them. They thrived there. His father built a home there, and every time Rawls went home, he would add his stories to an old metal trunk in the back of his dad’s shop. The stories were very precious to him, but he wouldn’t let anyone else look at them.

“I believe very sincerely that if you are trying to do something, and you really try, and as long as you are truthful and honest and don’t hurt anyone along the way, I think you have help. I know I did.”

Once he traveled into Texas on a freight train during a blizzard, still looking for worth after 3 years. He was very hungry because he hadn’t eaten in several days. About daylight, he walked into town looking for a Salvation Army or somewhere he could eat. He passed a large hotel. Just as he walked by, a porter came by pushing suitcases. There was a wealthy man coming after. Rawls stopped under the awning and leaned against the building and watched them put the suitcase in a car. He got angry because the man had enough money to hire someone to load his suitcase in a car, while he was starving. He went up to him and said “Sir, would you feed a hungry boy?” The man agreed to buy his breakfast. He said he was looking for work. The wealthy man gave him a paper with a recommendation for a job. He took the recommendation to a secretary in an office. She got up and took the paper and asked him not to leave. She brought 15 men back with her. They collected $44.22 for me to get a room. They asked me to come back the next day and said they would find him a job. He came back several days in a row. One morning, he came and the secretary said he had a job.

The job was in Mexico with a new oil rig crew and lasted for many years. When the other men went to town on weekends, he would stay in the bunkhouse to write. He came back to the states, working construction, then on the guided missile range in New Mexico. He transferred to Idaho and ended up in Mud Lake in an old cabin. He liked living there and could write all night. He had plenty of room to hunt and fish.

The wealthy ranchers convinced him to start his own business. One rancher wanted to put roofs onto some old granary buildings and hired him to do it. Then the rancher asked him to stay there while he and his wife were on vacation. While working on the roof, a woman drove up in a car. She rang the doorbell and then looked up at the granary where he was. She was persistent. He went down the ladder and told her nobody was home. They married a year later. “I don’t think that she just drove up in that yard. I never will believe it. I think she was supposed to. If I would have looked this world over, I couldn’t find help like that. . . She has a wonderful education, and boy can she type. She is my editor, my business agent, and my wife.”

Before they got married, he felt like his writing was worthless and he burned all of his old writing. “I burnt 5 complete novels in that fire and hundreds of short stories and novelettes. I know now there was not a one of them that any publisher in this country would have done anything to get their hands on one of them. But I was just so ashamed of that writing.”

Three months after they were married he told her that he burned all of his manuscripts. She said, “Well if you want to write that bad, why, just quit your job and sit down and rewrite one of those stories and let me look at it. I know a little bit about writing. And don’t worry about the bills. I make enough money to take care of that.” So he did.

I first started writing one that I wanted to write all of my life. It is a story called The Dark World. Then I laid it aside and wrote Where the Red Fern Grows.

“It only took me 6 weeks to write the thing because I had it memorized.” He wouldn’t let his wife read it until it was done. “I finished it on a Friday. I gave it to her Saturday morning and then I went to town. I stayed in town all day. I knew she had time to read it. I called her on the phone. I just knew she was going to laugh at that writing. I don’t know why I got ideas like that.”

She said “You get back here to the house. I want to talk to you.” She said that “this is the most wonderful boy and dog story I every read in my life.” She said “You’ve got this thing in such a mess that I don’t think we can do anything with it.” It was in the category of a novelette. It is too long to be a short story, but not long enough to be a novel. Novelettes are hard to publish. She asked if he could make it longer. He did.

He wrote it down again. She read it and said “This is good enough.” It meant a lot to him to have someone who believed in him. She said she would type it up and send it to the Saturday Evening Post. They rejected it.

She sent it to the Ladies Home Journal. She said if a female editor read it, it would get published. They didn’t hear for 6 weeks, then 2 months. He was a wreck. “I hung in there,” he said. This went on for 4 months. One day he got a letter that apologized for taking so long. They said it is the wrong kind of story for a ladies magazine. The editor wrote, “But I want to see this story published. I want you to give me permission to take it to the Saturady Evening Post.”

The story passed the initial readers and went to the big man. After reading it, he called and said he wanted to serialize it in the Saturday Evening Post. Rawls couldn’t believe it! “First I was scared, then I got real proud. Boy did I get proud. I wouldn’t have spoken to Earnest Hemmingway if I saw him in the middle of the road.” At the end of the year, he got a letter saying that they got more letters to the editor about that story than any other author. A publisher, Doubleday, agreed to publish it as a book.

At Doubleday, they changed the title from The Hounds of Youth to Where the Red Fern Grows. It didn’t sell for 6 years and they didn’t put much publicizing into it. They almost put it out of print. There was on agent who kept fighting for it. He said to the publishers, “If you just give this story a chance, put some publicity behind it, it will go.” The agent arranged for Rawls to speak to 5,000 reading teachers and librarians from around the world. Those teachers and librarians began to read it to children. This was the grass roots publicity the book needed to become popular.

Each year since then, it has sold more copies than the previous years.

Someone asked Rawls, “Do you have any regrets from years of being unknown and unpublizhed?” He said, “No. I don’t have any regrets. I set a goal in my life as a small boy. It took a long time to get there, but I finally got what I wanted out of life. I am a writer now. But if I do have any regrets, it would be just one. I wish my dad could had lived to where, one more time, I could have walked up to him, just like I did the time with that story in my hand, a barefooted boy, and said, ‘Dad do you think I could ever write a story like that?’ I wished I could have walked up to him one more time with these two books [Where the Red Fern Grows and Summer of the Monkeys] and just held them out to him and said ‘There they are, Dad. Sure took a long time.'”

Here is a YouTube video series about his life. Wilson Rawls’ speech begins at 5:51 in this video.

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