|Author||William H. Armstrong|
|Cover artist||James Barkley|
|Publisher||Harper & Row|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|LC Class||PZ7.A73394 So|
|Followed by||Sour Land, The MacLeod Place|
Sounder is a young adult novel by William H. Armstrong. It is the story of an African-American boy living with his sharecropper family. Although the family's difficulties increase when the father is imprisoned for stealing a ham from work, the boy still hungers for an education.
"Sounder", the dog's name, is the only character name used in the book. The author refers to the various characters by their relationship or their role in the story. The setting is also ambiguous. The author notes prisoners were hauled in "mule-drawn wagons", and the mention of chain gangs places an upper limit to the story of 1955 when the practice ended. The boy hears his father may be in Bartow and later Gilmer counties but the author does not specify where the boy lives. Since the boy is assured his father wouldn't be taken out of state, and because the ground freezes, we are left to assume the family lives in the counties around northern Georgia or northwestern South Carolina.
A black sharecropper's family is poor and hungry. The father and his dog, Sounder, go hunting each night, but the hunting is poor. The family subsists on fried corn mush, biscuits, and milk gravy until one morning they wake up to the smell of boiling ham. They feast for three days, but finally the sheriff and two of his deputies burst into the cabin and arrest the father. Sounder runs after them, and one of the deputies shoots him with a shotgun.
The arrested man's son goes looking for Sounder but cannot find him anywhere. When he traces their steps, he finds blood on the ground along with Sounder's ear. He puts the ear under his pillow and wishes for Sounder's return. His mother thinks Sounder has gone off to die on his own, but for several weeks the boy goes in search of the dog each day. In father's absence, the family survives on the money the mother makes by selling walnuts. The boy undertakes the added responsibility of helping look after his siblings, and he is stricken by the intense loneliness in the cabin.
Around Christmas, the boy's mother makes a four-layer cake for him to take to his father in jail. On the way, the boy is nervous about being stopped and made fun of by the townspeople. When he arrives, the jail guard treats him rudely, making him wait several hours to enter. Finally the boy is admitted, and the guard breaks the cake into pieces in order to "check" if it hid something to help the boy's father escape. The boy gives it to his father anyway and tells his father that Sounder might not be dead. Their conversation is strained and awkward. The father tells the boy not to come back to the jail.
In the morning, the boy awakes to the sound of faint whining, and goes outside, and finds Sounder standing there. The dog can only use three of its legs and has only one ear and one eye. The boy and his mother tend to the dog. Soon they receive word that the father was convicted and sentenced to hard labor, traveling county to county. The boy resolves to search for his father. During the late fall and winter months over a period of several years, he journeys within and among counties, looking for convicts working. One day he spots a group of convicts working, and leans up against a fence to watch them, looking for his father. The guard watching the group whacks the boy on the fingers with a piece of iron and tells him to leave.
The boy finds a school where he tries to wash the blood off his hands. Along the way, he finds an old book in a trashcan and carries it with him. While he is at the pump, school lets out, and he eventually meets an old teacher who takes him in, dresses his wounds, and asks what happened to him. The boy tells the teacher about Sounder and his father, and the teacher extends an offer for the boy to live with him and learn to read. The boy's mother tells him to go, and he stays with the teacher during the winter, working in the fields in summer. One fall, the boy is at home helping with chores when they see his father walking back toward them. Half his father's body is damaged from a dynamite blast, but he has made it home.
The man and his dog are reunited and leave one night to go hunting. Sounder later comes back without his master and, when the boy goes looking for his father, he finds him and thinks he is asleep. When he gets home, he tells his mother, who breaks it to him that his father is dead. Soon after, Sounder climbs under the porch and dies. Despite their deaths, there is a sense of peace and resolution over the family—especially the boy, who has achieved the single thing he most wanted in the world—to become literate.
In 2003, ABC's Wonderful World of Disney aired a new film adaptation, reuniting two actors from the original. Kevin Hooks directed and Paul Winfield played the role of the teacher. Winfield and Hooks played father and son, respectively, in the original version.
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