NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, October 30th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.
Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: a beloved canine security expert gets a new assignment.
Here’s reviewer Emily Whitten.
EMILY WHITTEN, REVIEWER: This fall, fans of John R. Erickson’s Hank the Cowdog books got a bonafide treat. An all new podcast version of a Hank story, read by actor Matthew McConaughey.
CLIP: It’s me again, Hank the Cowdog. It was your typical spring day, nothing out of the ordinary. Calm, bright, a little on the warmish side. The air full of cotton from the cottonwood trees. Myself, I was up in the machine shed hard at work, sleeping.
The podcast shares the same title as Book 11 in Erickson’s series of 75 Hank books. It’s called Lost in the Dark, Unchanted Forest. The plot kicks off as ranch owners Sally Mae and Loper bring home a new baby. Their oldest child, little Alfred, feels neglected and runs away into the nearby forest. So, Hank dutifully rushes in to rescue little Alfred, facing deadly dangers along the way, including Sinister the Bobcat and bumbling coyotes Rip and Snort. Here’s a clip from Episode Four:
CLIP: You could bite ‘em, kick ‘em, scratch ‘em, throw dirt in their eyes, chew on their ears, spit in their craw, and all it would do would just make em a little bit madder. I could see all 37 of Rip’s teeth. They were just about the longest sharpest teeth I’d ever seen, and I did not like the way they were decorating that smile. He flicked out his tongue, swept it around to the right side of his drooling lips, and then took it all the way back across his mouth and mopped up the left side. Now Rip, don’t go doing anything you might regret later!
Erickson fans will notice a few differences. For instance, Rip and Snort no longer sound like Native Americans but more typical American goons. The best parts of the narration and style do come directly from the book. It turns out, Austin-based creator Jeff Nichols became interested in Hank when he picked up Book 11 to read to his own son. Nichols had worked with fellow Texan, Matthew McConaughey, in the 20-13 movie Mud, and he originally proposed making an animated feature film starring McConaughey. But cost concerns and a growing need for family podcasts pushed Nichols toward an audio-only format.
And doggone it, it works. For one thing, the large cast, background music, and songs fill out the soundscape. That makes sense considering Nichols’s film background and the backing of film company Tri-Star Productions, among others. But the podcast format fits in another way, too. The original Hank stories grew out of the West Texas oral tradition of storytelling. Erickson explains in this 2014 interview at Abilene Christian University:
ERICKSON: I do all these stories as audiobooks because these stories come out of an oral tradition. It’s a cowboy tradition. It’s a rural tradition. Country people sitting around after breakfast or after supper and telling stories.
Erickson first realized he had something special when he began reading Hank stories aloud in the 1980s. He read them first to adults near his home of Perryton, Texas, and later began to read them to children in schools and libraries. When they asked to hear more about Hank, as he put it, he had enough sense to listen.
That’s not to say this podcast will be everyone’s cup of tea. Compared to, say, Focus on the Family’s Adventures in Odyssey podcasts, Erickson’s tales include a lot of violence and bad behavior. Hank rejoices when the cat gets tossed in the sewage pond, for instance, and characters bend the truth when it suits them. I should also say, some families won’t like the inclusion of a witch.
That said, Hank isn’t all bad. In fact, he reminds me a lot of Bugs Bunny, with much of the humor coming from a character’s immaturity. And you will find more than a few wholesome, family values here. Hank shows courage and loyalty, and kids of all ages will relate to his struggle to do the right thing … especially when facing an extra-ginormous bobcat.
Erickson says the tales reflect his Christian faith in important ways. He talked about that in this Compelled Podcast interview from 2019.
ERICKSON: I think in my case, I just try to write honest books and capture my wonder at God’s creation, and give people the gift of laughter, and make their children have sparkles in their eyes. Give them the equivalent of good home cooked food that will nourish their bodies. I think one of the best lines in Storycraft is, ‘Only the maker of galaxies would have thought to give mankind such a marvelous gift of a dog.’
Erickson has shared his gift of storytelling with fans for nearly 40 years now. He’s sold over 8 million copies of the Hank books worldwide, including versions in Farsi, Chinese, and Spanish. This podcast version aims to introduce a new generation of listeners to Hank the Cowdog, Head of Ranch Security. And on Apple Podcast alone, the five episodes of the first season racked up over 2,000 reviews averaging 4.5 out of 5 stars.
No word yet if that’ll be enough to earn Hank a second season, but I’d say he’s off to a rousing good start.
I’m Emily Whitten.