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 pork sausages and ham, 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.
Sounder won the Newbery Award in 1970, and was made in to a major motion picture in 1972.
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.
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 mother makes by shelling walnuts. The boy undertakes the added responsibility of helping to look after his siblings, and he is stricken by the intense loneliness in the cabin.
Around Christmas time, the boy's mother makes a three-layer cake for him to take to his father in jail. On the way there, the boy is nervous about being stopped and made fun of by the townspeople. When he arrives at the jail, the jail guard treats him rudely, making him wait a number of hours to enter. Finally the boy is let into the jail, and the guard breaks the cake into pieces. The boy gives it to his father anyway and tells his father that Sounder might not be dead. The conversation between the boy and his father is strained and awkward, and at the end of it his father tells him not to come back to the jail anymore.
The next morning the boy wakes up to the sound of faint whining and goes outside to find Sounder standing there. The dog can only use three of its legs and only has one ear and one eye. The book tried to described the dog with a very exact looks of Sounder. The boy and his mother tend to the dog. Soon they receive word that his 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 the boy spots a group of convicts working, and he 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 leaves and finds a school where he tries to wash the blood of off his hands. 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 has 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 the boy stays with the teacher during the fall and winter, working in the fields during the summer. One fall the boy is at home helping with chores when they see his father walking back toward them. Half of his father's body is damaged from a dynamite blast, but the man has made it home.
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