Born in Oklahoma, in 1913, Rawls would remember and long for his youth in the Ozark Hills by writing countless stories, most of which went up in smoke. The Depression saw his near-destitute family set out for California in 1929, hoping for a better life. Their car broke down near Albuquerque. His father found a job in a nearby toothpaste factory, so they never made it to the Coast.
Rawls became a carpenter and travelled widely plying his trade. He worked wood in Alaska, Canada, and South America. He got into a bit of trouble along the way, serving time twice in Oklahoma and once in New Mexico. Construction work finally brought him to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) site near Idaho Falls. He lived in a cabin near Mud Lake. It was on that Idaho job that he met his future wife, Sophie Ann Styczinski who was a budget analyst for the AEC. They married in 1958, just a couple of years before the carpenter became a novelist.
If editors had seen his early manuscripts, they might have thought he was better suited for carpentry than writing. The drafts were full of spelling and grammatical errors. He knew that and was ashamed that he was not a better writer. When he and Sophie were married, rather than show her his work, he set fire to five novel manuscripts and countless short stories and novelettes.
But the storyteller inside kept gnawing at him. During the winter, when construction work wasn’t available, he found himself with nothing to do.
“For three weeks I laid around the apartment and nearly went crazy,” Rawls told a reporter for the Idaho Statesman in 1961. “I told my wife my terrible secret. Never told anyone before. Not even my mother. I told her I had this great and awful desire to write.”
Sophie encouraged him. She bought him a pencil and a ruled tablet, and told him to sit down at the kitchen table and write. He re-wrote the novel three times in a year. When he had it right, Sophie took over. She edited it and typed it up. Then she mailed to the Saturday Evening Post. They paid $8,000 to serialize the story that would become his best-known novel, Where the Red Fern Grows. It was set in the Ozark Hills where he grew up trailing hounds with him as he explored.
In the Statesman article written to promote an appearance by the author at The Book Shop, Rawls said, “My writings are full of emotions. Most of ‘em kinda sad. Why, I had a letter from a schoolteacher say her whole class of little ones had to be taken out and git their faces washed from cryin’ so much when she read parts of my book out loud.”
Where the Red Fern Grows (1961) and his second novel Summer of the Monkeys (1976) each won multiple awards. Rawls passed away in 1984.