//by Jim Kjelgaard//published 1955//
When I was probably 11 or 12, I found some old books in a closet at my grandma’s house. The books had belong to my dad and his sister. Those books were my introduction to Marguerite Henry (Misty of Chincoteague), Jean Craighead George (My Side of the Mountain), and, perhaps most importantly, Jim Kjelgaard. Two of his books were in that closet – Lion Hound and Wild Trek. They were older copies, hardcover, from the Scholastic Book Club, and had originally belonged to Grandma’s mom, who was a school teacher. While I eventually ended up with Wild Trek (and My Side of the Mountain), I have no idea whatever happened to Lion Hound. And then, the other day, I realized that I really, really wanted to read it again. Thanks to the power of the internet, I had no trouble finding a copy, although the Bantam-Skylark paperback version isn’t the same as the old hardcover Scholastic – even the cover picture was more exciting on the hardcover!
Jim Kjelgaard has been weirdly influential in my life. His books encouraged me to cherish and enjoy the outdoors, to learn as much about wildlife as I could, to appreciate the balance that responsible hunters and trappers provide, and to realize that dogs are far superior to cats in almost every way (sorry, Mary Rose).
But I didn’t realize, the first time that I read Lion Hound, that I was reading a book that would stick with me for the rest of my life, and would cause me to snap up every Jim Kjelgaard book I came across. I just knew that I enjoyed the story.
Johnny lives out in the mountains somewhere west. He lives with his grandpa, who used to be a bounty hunter (for animals, not people… hunters would get paid for killing livestock-eating animals, like mountains lions and coyotes). Johnny has grown up loving the outdoors, but recognizes that the day of the bounty hunter is drawing to a close. He is planning to attend college and work in the forest service.
But for now, in high school, he is an average student who enjoys spending his weekends, whenever possible, hunting with Jake Kane. Jake, an older man (but not elderly like Grand Pop), is a bachelor who lives with his hounds a little ways from Johnny and Grand Pop. Jake is the last bounty hunter of the region, and knows the wilderness like the back of his hand. Although the area is more populated than it used to be, mountain lions are not uncommon, and Jake spends a great deal of the winter hunting them.
At the beginning of our story, a big lion has come into the neighborhood. Kjelgaard tells us what the humans in the story never know – the lion’s back-story, and why he has an extra dose of hatred for men and dogs. At the beginning of the story we also meet Jake’s new litter of hound puppies, including a little red one, Buck. Johnny is very impressed by Buck and wishes he could have a dog just like him, but Buck is a one-man dog, and that man is Jake Kane.
I’m not sure I can explain why I love this story so much. As an adult, I realize that it is really a rather strange story in many ways. We never find out why Johnny lives with his grandpa, or what happened to his parents. We don’t know exactly where he lives, or really very much about him at all. The same is true with Jake. How did he become the bounty hunter that he is? When did he start raising hounds? Why is Sallie his favorite one? It is, really, a rather sparse story. We know more about the lion’s childhood than Johnny’s.
However, that seems to fit what Kjelgaard is doing. He is writing a story about straightforward, hardworking men and their dogs, who live in a sparse, rugged country doing difficult, dangerous work. And the story works. I didn’t wonder about any questions of background or character backstory. Kjelgaard told what needed to be told in order to tell the story. And despite the fact that I don’t know anything about Johnny’s parents, Kjelgaard manages to paint a vivid character study of Johnny himself, and the two men in his life.
There aren’t really any females in Lion Hound. Most of Kjelgaard’s stories are about boys and dogs and their adventures. Somehow, despite the lack of female role models in the stories, though, I devoured them as a child. I read constantly nowadays about how critical it is that girls read stories about girls doing amazing things, otherwise girls won’t be able to realize that they, too, can do these amazing things. And while I have nothing against female protagonist, I don’t really understand this kind of reasoning. Even though Kjelgaard’s stories were about boys, I never doubted that I could do everything they did. I knew that I was just as intelligent as they were, and that I could learn to do anything any boy could learn how to do. I daydreamed and wrote stories about living in the wilderness, and had an imaginary pack of dogs at my heels every time I played outside. I climbed trees and built forts and dams, and learned about birds, animals, trees, and edible plants. Even though there weren’t any girls doing those things in Kjelgaard’s stories, even as a child I had no doubts that Kjelgaard wrote about boys because he was a boy, but that I was a girl and could anything any boy could, if I cared to try. I didn’t need a female protagonist to take me by the hand and reassure me, and I don’t think most girls do. It seems rather insulting, really, to say that girls will only realize that they can do things if they read/see/hear about other girls doing them, as though they are too stupid to make the connection otherwise.
But I digress. The point is, Kjelgaard’s books are a delight to me. Some I loved more than others, but I’m getting ready to binge by reading every Kjelgaard book I own, so you’ll be hearing about those in due time.
Lion Hound was a childhood favorite, but it was well worth the read as an adult. A simple, rugged story of a boy, a dog, and an enemy, with quiet lessons about hard work, loyalty, and integrity. 5/5.