Life is hard for an African American sharecropping family in the depression era South. To supplement their food and income, the father hunts the woods surrounding their home for squirrels and raccoons. Then comes a time when every night, the oldest boy sees his father leave with his faithful coon dog, Sounder, but every morning he comes back empty-handed. One night his father leaves the house without Sounder, and the next morning the boy awakens to the smell of sausage and ham cooking. Not long after, the sheriff comes with his men, dragging the boy's father away in chains. From that night on, life would never be the same for any of them, but it does still continue in unexpected ways.
Sounder isn't so much a story about a dog as it is the coming of age story of an African American boy in the depression era South. There is a beauty in the simplicity of the author's writing which imparts a great deal of meaning in a minimum of words. William H. Armstrong was definitely an author who understood the meaning of the saying, "Less is more" and put it to good use. I never thought a book in which the characters have no names could be so powerful, yet even though I didn't know what they were called and very little of what they looked like, the author made me really care about them. Though spare and unembellished, his narrative managed to convey the hardships of life for a sharecropping family during that time. Loneliness seems to be a running theme throughout a large part of the book, and I could sense the boy's feelings of isolation very deeply. It is also a story about searching for meaning in life. As the boy travels around the countryside looking for his father, he discovers his heart's desire. It is also about the unbreakable bond between a man and his dog that often transcends our mortal understanding. The way this connection was depicted near the end of the book was both joyful and heartbreaking at the same time, bringing tears to my eyes.
From a parental standpoint, I think this book has some wonderful messages to convey to kids. All of the main characters, the boy, his mother, his father, and Sounder, all showed a great deal of determination in the face of adversity. The family exhibits a strong religious faith that was rendered in a very gentle way that I enjoyed. There is also the idea that if we search long enough and work hard enough, we can accomplish what we set out to do. Although I didn't feel that there was anything particularly unsuitable for kids in the book, sensitive readers, especially animal lovers, should be aware that there are a couple of descriptive scenes involving cruelty to animals and details of injuries received by both a human character and an animal. The boy also thought about what it might be like to watch two men die, one in the way that he'd seen a bull strangled and the other in the way that he'd seen a scarecrow torn apart by the wind. It was only his thoughts though, and he never outwardly exhibited any violent tendencies. Not to mention, both men had treated him very poorly, so it was rather understandable. Lastly, there is one use of the "n" word as a racial slur, and two characters die, but of course, dying is simply a part of life.
Sounder, like many other children's classics, may be more easily appreciated by adults, but in my opinion, there is much for children to glean from it's pages, lessons that kids in our modern world need to learn but often don't. Sounder is a beautiful story that has earned a spot on my keeper shelf. I can understand why it won the Newberry Medal. It is a wonderful tale that is truly powerful in its simplicity. Although it isn't really marketed a such, Sounder is the first in a trilogy of books followed by Sour Land and The MacLeod Place. It was also made into a motion picture that received several Academy Award nominations. I'm really looking forward to reading the other books in the series and seeing the movie as well.
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