Monday, June 14, 2010

Sounder, by William H. Armstrong

I finished this book several days ago, but haven't been sure how to write about it.

"Sounder" of the title is a hunting dog with a tremendous voice, owned by a sharecropping family in the 19-teens or twenties. He is also the only character in the book to have a name. The main character, other than Sounder, is "the boy", who I would guess is about 8 or 9 at the book's beginning. His family is hungry, it's winter, there's no income... and we are not explicitly told, but we gather that the boy's father steals a ham in order to feed his family. Unsurprisingly, his father is arrested and treated with the "justice" that you would expect, given the setting. Which is to say, he is kept in jail for months before being sentenced to years of hard labor. During the arrest, Sounder is shot.

The boy waits for months for Sounder to return - he didn't die in his usual spot under the porch, so he might still be alive. He also goes around the countryside looking for word of his father from the men on the work crews he comes across. He's smart, and hungry to learn, and ultimately befriends a schoolteacher some miles from home, who offers to let him live with him and attend his school. Sounder is alive, but doesn't make his fantastic "sound" again until the boy's father returns, literally a broken man.

The author tells us that he first heard the story from an old man who lived it. True or not, it's a haunting tale, certainly with enough truth in it to count, even if it's not strictly non-fiction. Definitely worth reading, but don't expect a happy ending. Read it with your dog close by if you have one.

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