A Determined Spirit: A Review of ‘Stone Fox’

“A small body of determined spirits fired by unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.”  – Mahatma Gandhi

Reading Level: 

Grade 4-5 [according to common core]

Grade 3.2 [according to Scholastic]

Grade 4    [AR level]

Interest Level:

Grades 3-5

Review and Comments:

Stone Fox is a story about courage and determination.  It is a story about a young boy’s love for his grandfather and his dog that will touch the heart of the reader.

Little Willy and his grandfather are a loving team.  They live and work together on a potato farm in Wyoming, and they are happy. Everything changes however when Grandfather becomes seriously ill. It is as if he has given up on life. Willy is resolved to make him want to live again by working the potato farm and bringing in a very successful harvest.  Even after selling the crop there is no improvement in Grandfather‘s condition, but Willy does not despair.  He diligently prepares the farm for winter, cares for his grandfather, attends school, and runs errands in town.  Then, everything about his grandfather’s illness becomes clear.  Willy learns that Grandfather owes the State of Wyoming $500 because he has not paid any taxes for ten years. They will lose the farm if the bill is not paid.  Willy has no idea how to raise the money, but he is confident that he will not be defeated by this overwhelming situation.  He will devise a plan to help Grandfather.

Willy and Searchlight are an inseparable team.  Searchlight is a faithful dog who helps, protects, and comforts Willy. At the end of each day they race home from Main Street across areas that Searchlight maneuvers easily.  They worked side-by-side for days to harvest the potatoes.  Then one day Willy sees a poster for the National Dogsled Race with a $500 prize.  Willy is convinced that together he and Searchlight will win the race, pay the taxes, and grandfather will get well.

Stone Fox and his five Samoyeds are a formidable team.  They have never lost a race and do not plan on losing this one. While Willy races to pay off the taxes owed to the state of Wyoming, Stone Fox races to buy back the homeland his tribe was forced to leave. He is one strong-willed and determined man.

The day of the race arrives. Nine racers are in position at the starting line. The race begins and Willy and Searchlight are immediately in the lead.  The light sled and Searchlight’s ease with the familiar route allows them to pull farther and farther ahead.  As expected, Stone Fox is an ever-present threat so Searchlight “pours on the steam” and gives everything she has to give.  With only one hundred yards left in the race Searchlight’s heart gives out, and she dies instantly. It is here the tension of the race transitions to on an almost slow motion quality. Stone Fox stops, looks at Willy, and looks at the finish line.  Then, in an incredible response, Stone Fox draws a line in the snow and takes out his rifle.  He threatens the other teams and prevents them from finishing the race.  In a heart-wrenching final scene, Willy carries his beloved companion the last ten yards across the finish line.

John Reynolds Gardiner’s poignant story of faithfulness is based on a Rocky Mountain legend.  It is a valuable story and one well suited for the suggested reading levels.  Willy is a strong and honorable character, which is refreshing at this level of literature.  Stone Fox is a great book for boys and dog lovers.

Possible Issues:

  • [On the day of the race, Willy notices all the people in town at the starting line.] There was “Dusty the drunk.” [At the race] “Dusty took a powerful swig from a whiskey bottle.”
  • Stone Fox hits Willy across the face when he approaches his Samoyeds. Willy has a black eye.
  • Sensitive children (and maybe a grandmother) may find the death of Searchlight difficult to read.

Further Discussion:

  • Awards:

1980 New York Times Notable Book of the Year

1981 Notable Book Children’s Literature Council of Southern California

1987 George G. Stone Center for Children’s Book Recognition of Merit Award

  • There is an interesting repetition of the number ten throughout the story. Willy and Searchlight are ten years old.  The taxes have been unpaid for ten years.  The potato harvest takes ten days.  The race is ten miles long. And Willy carries Searchlight the final ten yards to the finish line.

Dog Sledding Fun Facts

  1. Sled dogs can run 20 m/hr or 30 km/hr.
  2. Since dogs are pack animals, it is important to pick a lead dog that is accepted by the other sled dogs on the team.
  3. The dogs behind the leader are called the point dogs, and the ones behind them are called the swing dogs. The wheel dogs are directly in front of the musher.
  4. The musher has to push the sled when the snow gets too soft.
  5. The harness must be straight at all times, because if not, the harness will get stuck on the feet of the sled dogs.
  6. When picking out a sled dog, they must have a very dense coat of fur as a puppy.
  7. Sled dogs usually weigh from 50-65 pounds.
  8. Sled dogs cannot be picky eaters at a young age, because they have to be satisfied with the food during a race.
  9. Sled dogs love reindeer meat soup.
  10. Sled dogs must be built, and have stamina for long distance running. http://kmiditarod.blogspot.com/2013/04/dog-sledding-fun-facts.html

Catholic Resources:

Lord Jesus, you were born of the Virgin Mary, the daughter of Saints Joachim and Anne. Look with love on grandparents the world over. Protect them! They are a source of enrichment for families, for the Church and for all of society. Support them! As they grow older, may they continue to be for their families strong pillars of Gospel faith, guardian of noble domestic ideals, living treasuries of sound religious traditions. Make them teachers of wisdom and courage, that they may pass on to future generations the fruits of their mature human and spiritual experience.

Lord Jesus, help families and society to value the presence and roles of grandparents. May they never be ignored or excluded, but always encounter respect and love. Help them to live serenely and to feel welcomed in all the years of life which you give them. Mary, Mother of all the living, keep grandparents constantly in your care, accompany them on their earthly pilgrimage, and by your prayers, grant that all families may one day be reunited in our heavenly homeland, where you await all humanity for the great embrace of life without end.

  • Saint Isadore is the patron of farmers, and his feast day is May 15th.

Prayer : God, through the intercession of St. Isidore, the holy farmer, grant that we may overcome all feelings of pride. May we always serve You with that humility which pleases You, through his merits and example.