Born on Cherokee Nation Land in the Oklahoma Ozarks, Rawls entered the world on September 24, 1913. His mother was Cherokee, and she owned the land on which they lived. Without a school in their area, Rawls was home taught. As Rawls grew up, he enjoyed hearing books read to him that his grandmother had purchased, but he had no interest in reading by himself. That changed when his mother read Call of the Wild and then gave the book to him as his own. After that experience, Rawls read voraciously and intended to one day to become a writer.
Rawls's father supported his son's aspirations and also warned that he would need an education to make his dream possible. The family moved away from their farm and settled in Tahlequah, Oklahoma where Rawls attended school until part-way through eighth grade. Facing the Great Depression, he left home to find work. Traveling all over the country, Rawls worked as a handyman and carpenter on the Alcan highway in Alaska. He also found employment in Canada and South America and then ended up at the Atomic Energy Commission in Idaho where he met his future wife Sophie.
Throughout his travels, Rawls wrote. He stored his stories in his father's workshop and wouldn't show them to anyone, embarrassed by his own deficiencies in grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Eventually realizing that he intended to marry Sophie, he returned to the family home in Albuquerque and burned all his manuscripts. He was afraid Sophie would some day see them. Though he tried hard to be something other than an author, Rawls confessed to Sophie his dream to write a book. Surprised that she would support such an idea, he rewrote one of his stories at her request. Sophie enjoyed his work and offered to help him with the editing. They became a team.
Rawl's manuscript, which was mainly autobiographical, was rejected by the Saturday Evening Post and the Ladies Home Journal. Ironically the Ladies Home Journal asked permission to send it back to the Saturday Evening Post where it found acceptance the second time. The magazine published it in three parts before Doubleday decided to publish it as a book in hardcover and call the story Where the Red Fern Grows.
It took several years for the book to sell well. Then, when offered an opportunity to speak at a teachers' workshop at the University of Utah, Rawls accepted and left a lasting impression on his audience. From that point on, his book sales significantly increased and the novel won awards. His next book Summer of the Monkeys also gained Rawls recognition. Deeply grateful for where he came to be in life, Rawls traveled all over talking to teachers, students, and librarians. Using his own life as an example, he entreated them to never give up on a dream, learn proper grammar, and stay in school. An influential speaker, Rawls spoke at over two thousand schools in twenty-two states. Age slowed down the speaking engagements he loved to present, and death came knocking on December 16, 1984.
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