|Author||William H. Armstrong|
|Publisher||Harper & Row|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|LC Class||PZ7.A73394 So|
|Followed by||Sour Land|
Sounder is a young adult novel by William H. Armstrong, published in 1969. 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 would not 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.
The 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. Returning to the scene of the shooting, the boy finds a part of Sounder's ear. He puts the ear under his pillow that night, but loses it under the cabin the next day while crawling in the dirt looking for the dog. While his mother cautions him not to "be all hope", the boy searches the surrounding countryside for the dog every day for weeks. In the father's absence, the family survives on the money the mother makes by selling cracked walnuts. The boy helps to look after his three younger siblings, and experiences the intense loneliness of the cabin.
For 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, he has to wait and the jail guard treats him rudely. Finally the boy is admitted, and the guard breaks the cake into pieces with his hands, saying he suspects it could hide something which could help the boy's father escape. The boy gives the mangled cake to his father anyway and tells his father that Sounder might not be dead. Their conversation is strained and difficult. The father tells the boy not to come back to the jail. The boy feels guilty that he has grieved his father by not acting "perkish", as his mother had told him to. He fantasizes about the guard coming to a violent end.
In the morning, the boy awakes to the sound of faint whining, goes outside, and finds Sounder standing there. The dog can only use three of its legs and has only one ear and one eye, and no longer barks. The boy and his mother tend to the dog.
When the family receives 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, seeking word of his father. He also tries with some success to teach himself to read newspapers.
One day he is leaning in against a fence, watching a group, trying to make out his father's form, when a guard whacks the boy on the fingers with a piece of iron and tells him to leave. While the boy walks toward the outskirts of town immediately following this, he sees someone putting a book in a trashcan. It is a large volume of Montaigne, and the boy takes it with him, but cannot make sense of it. The boy finds a school where he tries to wash the blood off his hands. While he is at the pump, school lets out, and the boy meets an old teacher who dresses his wounds, takes him in, and asks what happened to him. The boy tells the teacher about Sounder and his father and, observing the book, the teacher extends an offer to 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 August day, the boy is at home helping with chores when they see his father walking back toward them. One side of his father's body is crippled from being crushed in a quarry. Sounder, who has anticipated the man's return for days, runs out to meet him, and barks.
Weeks later, the man and his dog go hunting. It is their first night hunting since the man's return. The man has been waiting until he can invite his son, but now he sees that the boy is tired from fieldwork, and the man further senses that the activity might no longer interest the boy. At dawn Sounder comes back without his master and, when the boy follows Sounder to the man, he finds him dead. When the boy returns to the teacher, he tells his mother that Sounder will be dead before he can come back for the holiday. Two weeks before Christmas, Sounder crawls 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.
Although it may not be the happiest ending to the story, it is a wonderful way to end it at the same time. With their deaths the boy might be mournful but, again, there is peace in their deaths.
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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