As soon as I began reading Sounder I realised that I was in similar territory to another 1970s Newbery winner- Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry which I read a few months ago (see my review). Sounder is the slightly older of the two books, published in 1969, and is historical fiction telling the story of a black sharecropping family in the South of America at an unspecified time, although I can't remember a car ever being in the story even for the police so I suspect it is set quite some time before the Depression era tale of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.
Sounder is quite an unusual book to read, as Sounder, a dog, is the only named character. Sounder lives with a family in their isolated, unpainted, uncurtained cabin. Actually Sounder lives under the cabin, sleeping on coffee sacks under the stairs. Sounder found the father when he "wasn't more'n a pup."
'Sounder and me must be about the same ag,' the boy said, tugging gently at one of the coon dog's ears, and then the other. He felt the importance of the years- a s child measures age- which separated I'm from the younger children. He was old enough to stand out in the cold and run his fingers over Sounder's head.
The family are very poor, eeking out their rather marginal existence. The boy is keen to learn, and keen to go to school but the eight mile walk each way is too much in the winter cold. Sounder and his master, the boy's father, go out hunting each night, but they have been returning empty handed for some time. There were no racoon or possum hides to sell, and no meat for the family to eat. Winter also meant no crops, no work, and so no pay.
There are some interesting quotes about books, stemming from William H. Armstrong's work as a teacher I suspect.
The boy had heard once that some people had so many book they only read each one once.It shouldn't have surprised me I suppose but it was a shock to have it pointed out that "no mailman passed and there was no mailbox" for the poor and illiterate. At one stage the boy retrieves a book from the rubbish. Rather intriguingly for someone who has taught himself to read by reading signs in stores he finds himself holding a book of Essays by Montaigne.
It was a book of stories about what people think. There were titles such as Cruelty, Excellent Men, Education, Cripples, Justice, and many others. The boy sat down, leaned back against the barrel, and began to read from the story called Cruelty.
But the words were "too new and strange". Sounder is a slim little volume, a mere 90 pages, but it sure packs an emotional punch. The boy's father is driven to do a desperate act by poverty and lack of food for his family. These are resilient, strong people living most difficult lives. There is indeed Cruelty and violence.
William H. Armstrong was a white teacher, and some people have criticized that he can't tell a black story. In an Author's Note at the beginning of the book he tells of a black man he knew in his childhood. This man told him the story of Sounder.
It is the black man's story, not mine.... It was history- his history.