The Fact and the Fiction of
Jim Kjelgaard & the “Red” Trilogy
Physician Dr.Carrol Kjelgaard and his wife welcomed the arrival of their fourth son in New York City, USA on 6th December 1910 and named him James (Jim) Arthur Kjelgaard. When Jim was two years old the family moved to a seven hundred and fifty acre farm swathed in the forests and wild countryside of Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains and the family grew to include another brother and sister. The farm was stocked with all manner of domesticated animals and the surrounding forests provided excellent hunting and fishing which permeated life for Jim and the family.
Sadly the farming venture failed and they moved to Galeton, Pennsylvania where Jim attended the local high school. An avid reader he began writing his own poems and stories on a desk made out of a box on which he perched a vintage typewriter. A keen trapper, hunter and fisherman with an abiding love of dogs, particularly Setters which he favoured on hunting excursions, he wrote of the wilderness and its inhabitants which he knew so well.
Eagerly he sent his adventurous articles to hunting and fishing magazines without success, but in 1928 aged 19 his first story was published for which he received a free two year subscription to an outdoor magazine. He enrolled at Syracuse University to further his education, but this was not to his liking and by his own admission he ‘held a dozen jobs and at one time or another was a labourer, teamster, factory worker, plumber’s apprentice and surveyor’s assistance.’ At 28 he decided to pursue a career as a writer conceding ‘things seemed just naturally to be heading in that direction anyhow.
He wrote many articles for outdoor/nature magazines and in 1941 Vernon Ives, editor of Holiday House, suggested he write a boys adventure story. Taking up the challenge his first novel, Forest Patrol, was published in 1941. The book was based on the adventures he shared with his brothers in the early 1930’s particularly John who became a Forest Ranger. This novel and his next, Rebel Siege, sold moderately well.
In 1938 Jim married Edna (Eddie) Dresden and they moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin where their daughter Karen was born. While Eddie was always supportive of Jim’s writing (they had met as a result of her fan mail) they were an oddly matched couple holding differing opinions on remote country life and dogs, two of the main themes of Jim’s books. Karen acknowledged in later life that during her formative years they mostly lived in cities with regular summer excursions, in a somewhat unreliable grey Dodge, to the wild west of America. On these joyous travels Eddie took hundreds of photographs of the countryside, its animals and human occupants to assist Jim in his writing.
The family always had dogs although Eddie insisted that they stay outside. The first dog Karen remembers was Mac, a red cocker spaniel A few years later while resident for a short time in Thiensville, then a small town set in Wisconsin farmland, Rudd Weatherwax (owner and trainer of Pal, the Rough Collie that portrayed Lassie in the 1943 classic film Lassie Come Home) sent them an Irish Setter bitch they named Sheila.
Karen recalled these happy days as ‘mother was close enough to her family to be content and Dad had a bit of elbow room and some woods, though not precisely wild forest.’ She and Jim regularly hunted pheasant together and often went on fishing expeditions.
In 1945 Kjelgaard’s most successful novel, Big Red, was published by Holiday House and written for young readers with a taste for adventure. The book was the first of a trilogy that involved Irish Setters and the passage from boyhood to manhood of its leading characters. In all the Red books Jim conveys the honourable moral code of loyalty, courage, perseverance and trust especially between boy and dog. As Karen commented ‘ I wish I could say (our pet) Sheila was Big Red personified, but she wasn’t, but how many people know that the model for Big Red was a black setter cross that my father knew in his youth?’
Nevertheless Jim seams to have used the names of his pets for Big Red’s fictional mate Sheilah MacGuire who was dam to a litter of five pups which included Mike and Sean both of whom have their own stories to tell in Irish Red written in 1951 and Outlaw Red written in 1953. As Brian Doyle observed Jim expressed the opinion ‘again and again about how breeding dogs for certain skills and appearances is a valorous and virtuous thing‘ and explains why the millionaire land owner and dog breeder James Haggin plays a leading role.
Only an author with an intimate association and understanding of Irish Setter character and temperament could write with such passion of the breed whether as show or hunting dogs. As a trapper and hunter Jim’s wildlife knowledge is obvious as he writes of weasels, valuable fur-bearers such as mink, otter, marten and the king of the northern woods, the wolverines, the latter playing an especially volatile role in Big Red, but all have their place in the Red Trilogy as does the rogue bear Old Majesty which Big Red and Danny Picket track down.
Jim Kjelgaard, the hunter, with his Irish Setter
Sadly the family left Thiensville in the early 1950’s for medical reasons as Jim began to suffer bouts of acute back pain. The doctors could offer little relief, but thought a change of climate may help so the family moved to Arizona on the outskirts of Phoenix. As Karen admitted ‘The first year in the Sonoran desert seemed like an exile after the green of Wisconsin, but both my father and I grew to love it there’. Together they hunted wild turkey in the desert and fished in the high White Mountain lakes. Exploring the local terrain they soon discovered its animals and learnt where a mountain lion lived near Cave Creek.
The family spent part of each summer on the Kaibab plateau near the rim of the Grand Canyon where they viewed hundreds of grazing deer on the open plains and wild turkey were to be found in the ponderosa and spruce forests. Here Jim enjoyed the isolation and the great abundance of wildlife. On other occasions they ventured into Mexico.
Re-energized from these excursions, he would return home to pound his old typewriter with two fingers for eight or more hours a day, often seven days a week writing articles and books, not all of which were published. Nevertheless his prolific writing yielded over forty novels, many about dogs and wild animals with others based in early American “wild west” history.
By the late 1950’s Jim was consumed by pain which despite numerous consultations with medical professionals produced no definitive diagnosis, as the agonising pain worsened he sank into the depths of despair. In the summer of 1959 aged 48, he left the family in their White Mountains Arizona cabin and quietly returned to their home in Phoenix. Three days later the family were shocked to discover he had committed suicide.
As Brian Doyle wrote’ I often think with affection of Kjelgaard, and imagine him late in a fall afternoon in his beloved Allegheny beech woods, walking with “shuffling loose-kneed gait of the born woodsman” that he bestowed upon Danny at the very beginning of Big Red.’
‘With Kjelgaard in my mind are his dogs, Irish setters of course, snuffling after rabbits, bedevilling woodchucks that barely haul their fat autumn selves into their holes as the dogs snap at their heels. The sun is splattering down between the branches of the trees. Perhaps two dead grouse are swinging at the man’s belt and his rifle is carried loosely in his arm as he heads for home and dinner, roast grouse over rice and after dinner a stiff cup of coffee and a couple of hours writing up the way that bobcat over north of the mountain doubled back through a laurel thicket to fool the dogs, which are at the moment snuffling themselves to sleep in front of the fire. Tomorrow morning maybe he will hike out to the pond and watch for mink and otter, and then in the afternoon work some on the book about a red fox (his favourite wild animal). But right now the sun is low and the day is done and the woods are filled with stories.’
225.000 copies of Big Red sold in its first decade of publication with over a million since and it is still in print as are many of Jim Kjelgaard’s novels.
In 1960 the American Boy Scouts Golden Jubilee year The Boys Life – Dodd Mead Writer’s Award was posthumously awarded to Jim Kjelgaard. He ‘was a great friend and interpreter of boys and a great outdoors man who worked informally with hundreds of Scouts’ reported the Milwaukee Journal.
Sadly Kjelgaard did not live long enough to see the Disney movie Big Red, albeit that the movie script was only based on his novel. The star of the movie was Am. & Mex Breed Champion Red Aye Scraps (qualified Working Trial Utility Dog) and the following notice was published by the Irish Setter Club of Minnesota in their 1961 Newsletter:
‘Ch. Red Aye Scraps,UD Irish setter owned by Mr. And Mrs. Heist of Fontana, California is to be the dog lead in Walt Disney’s tale of high adventure “Big Red” ready for production in eastern Canada. Scraps departs today, July 7th for La Malbaie, Quebec Province where he will go before the Disney Technicolour cameras as Redcoat Reilly of Wintapi, the prize dog and central figure in the action-packed, heart warming story starring Walter Pidgeon, Gilles Payant and Emile Genest. Winston Hibler will produce and Norman Tokar will direct for Disney. Principal photography starts July 13. The film story was adapted from the Kjelgaard book “Big Red” by Louis Pelletier screen writer.
Scraps was trained for the leading role in the movie by William Koehler, His understudy was another well know showdog owned and bred by Mr. & Mrs. Heist Ch. Red Arrow Smooth Sailing.
Gilles Payant and Am & Mex Ch. Red Aye Scraps pose for a publicity photo for the Disney film Big Red
Of Scraps supporting canine cast Haleridge Princess Cenna portrayed Molly Big Red’s mate. The Haleridge kennel of James and Evelyn Hale in Malibu, California also provided over sixty Haleridge puppies during the ten-month period of filming for the whelping scenes in the picture encouraging the dams to lick the pups on cue by coating them with food.
The human cast comprised actors Walter Pidgeon as James Haggin with Gilles Payant in the principal role of the orphaned French Canadian boy Rene Dumont, Emile Genest and Janette Bertrand played Emile Fornet (kennelman) and his wife Therese (Haggin’s housekeeper). George Bouviers the Baggage man and Doris Lussier farmer Mariot.
The plot begins with James Haggin purchasing “Big Red” in the hope of making him a champion show dog, but Red is unruly and does not take to being handled. An orphaned French Canadian boy, Rene is employed by Haggin to work in the kennels. Big Red and Rene soon develop a special bond and Haggin fears the dog will not listen to anyone else and tries to separate them to no avail. On the eve of departure for the dog show Red crashes through a window to follow Rene and is seriously injured. Haggin orders the dog be euthanized, but Red and Rene escape to his dead uncle’s cabin in the forest where Rene nurses Red back to health.
Subsequently Big Red is returned to Haggin who decides to sell him and pregnant Mollie. While being shipped to Montreal by train they escape into the wilderness. The story culminates with Big Red and Rene rescuing Haggin from a cougar and eventually they are all re-united at Haggin’s estate Wintapi.
L to R: Rene Dumont (Gilles Payant) Big Red (Scraps) & James Haggin (Walter Pidgeon)
Big Red encounters the Cougar
At the gala premiere of Big Red in the Chicago Theatre Illinois, Emily Schweitzer’s bitch Ch. Verbu Missy Ough CDX was invited to demonstrate her skills. Despite the noise of mid-day Strate Street traffic in front of the theatre, Missy performed all her obedience title requirements including clearing the high jump and as a finale displayed her working ability when sent to hunt in a large fenced “field” of artificial flowers and weeds in which there was hidden a live but dizzied pheasant. Missy was unfazed by the unfamiliar surroundings and found the bird, remaining steady on point while flash bulbs popped and cameras clicked to the delight of an appreciative crowd.
Ch. Verbu Missy Oogh CDX goes on point outside the Chicago Theatre at the premier of the movie Big Red
Such was Scraps performance as Big Red that it earned him the animal equivalent of an Oscar – The Patsy Award in 1963
Big Red poses with his Patsy Trophy
while being photographed by C. Lydon Lippincott
This article is compiled and written by Bridget & Mark Simpson firstname.lastname@example.org
Book: This is the Irish Setter by Joan McDonald Brearley
The Irish Setter Club of Minnesota 1961 Newsletter
Jim Kjelgaard A Daughter’s Memoir by Karen Kjelgaard
A Small Note About Big Red by Brian Doyle
Gary Charter of Sprintmail – charterbus/kjelgaard
Disney Movie Big Red images and websites
Annexure to The Fact & Fiction of Jim Kjelgaard & the Red Trilogy
33 PUBLISHED BOOKS BY AUTHOR JIM KJELGAARD
Some of the following can be read free on line Outlaw Red can be found at
- Forest Patrol (1941)
- Rebel Siege (1943)
- Big Red (1945)
- Buckskin Brigade (1947)
- Snow Dog (1948)
- Kalak of the Ice (1949)
- A Nose for Trouble (1949)
- Wild Trek (1950)
- Chip the Dam Builder (1950)
- Irish Red, Son of Big Red (1951)
- Fire-hunter (1951)
- The Explorations of Pere Marquette (1951)
- Trailing Trouble (1952)
- Outlaw Red, Son of Big Red (1953)
- The Spell of the White Sturgeon (1953)
- The Coming of the Mormons (1953)
- Haunt Fox (1954)
- Cracker Barrel Trouble Shooter (1954)
- Lion Hound (1955)
- The Lost Wagon (1955)
- Desert Dog (1956)
- Trading Jeff and his Dog (1956)
- Wildlife Cameraman (1957)
- Cochise, Chief of Warriors (1957)
- Double Challenge (1957)
- We Were There at the Oklahoma Land Run (1957)
- Wolf Brother (1957)
- Swamp Cat (1957)
- Rescue Dog of the High Pass (1958)
- The Land is Bright (1958)
- The Black Fawn (1958)
- The Story of Geronimo (1958)
- Hi Jolly (1959)
- Stormy (1959)
- Ulysses & his Woodland Zoo (1960)
- Boomerang Hunter (1960)
- The Duck-footed Hound (1960)
- Tigre (1961)
- Hidden Trail (1962)
- Fawn in the Forest & other Wild Animal Stories (1962)
- Two Dogs & a Horse (1964)
- Furious Moose of the Wilderness (1965)
- Dave and his Dog, Mulligan (1966)
- Coyote Song (1969)