warning: spoilers ahead.
Books take us out of ourselves. They show us other places, other times, the lives of people different from us. Through reading we are given glimpses into the thoughts of others, we walk for a short time in someone else’s shoes. Sometimes that’s difficult, or painful, or sad. Sometimes books are our salvation.
William H. Armstrong’s novel Sounder, winner of the 1970 Newbery Award, tells the story of a boy--the son of a sharecropper—and his painful journey to adulthood. The boy, who is never named in the story, lives in a cabin with his parents and younger siblings, and his father’s dog Sounder, a bulldog/ Georgia redbone hound mix. They are poor, illiterate, and isolated:
No dim lights from other cabins punctuated the night. The white man who owned the vast endless fields had scattered the cabins of his Negro sharecroppers far apart, like flyspecks on a whitewashed ceiling. Sometimes on Sundays the boy walked with his parents to set awhile at one of the distant cabins. Sometimes they went to the meetin’ house. And there was school too. But it was far away at the edge of town… Two successive Octobers the boy had started, walking the eight miles morning and evening. But after a few weeks when cold winds and winter sickness came, his mother had said, “Give it up, child. It’s too long and too cold.” (p. 2)
One morning the boy wakes to the smell of pork sausage and ham bone cooking, an aroma he has only smelled in his own home once before in his life. The family has plenty to eat, and even Sounder eats well. Three days later, three white men show up at the door:
”There are two things I can smell a mile,” the first man said in a loud voice. “One’s a ham cookin’ and the other’s a thievin’ nigger.”(p. 23)
As the boy and his family watch helplessly, the men shackle his father and take him away. The boy tries to hold Sounder, but he breaks away and runs after his master, and one of the deputies shoots him.
Sounder lay still in the road. The boy wanted to cry; he wanted to run to Sounder. His stomach felt sick; he didn’t want to see Sounder. He sank to his knees at the woodpile. His foot hurt where the door had been slammed on it. He thought he would carry in two chunk-sticks. Maybe his mother would drag Sounder out of the road. Maybe she would drag him across the fields and bury him. Maybe if she laid him on the porch and put some soft rags under him tonight, he might rise from the dead, like Lazarus did in a meetin'-house story. Maybe his father didn’t know Sounder was dead. Maybe his father was dead in the back of the sheriff’s wagon now. Maybe his father had said it hurt to bounce over the rough road on his back, and the deputy had turned around on the seat and shot him. (p. 28)
Sounder didn’t die, but he never fully recovered, and he no longer barked; no sign remained of the deep, distinctive voice for which he had been named. There had been an overhanging feeling of quiet in the cabin before the boy’s father was taken away, but afterward the silence and loneliness were just about tangible. Times when she was happy, the boy’s mother would sing:
You gotta walk that lonesome valley,
You gotta walk it by yourself,
Ain’t nobody else gonna walk it for you.
The boy loved it when his mother would tell him Bible stories. The stories, and the songs she sang, offered strength and hope.
"Tell me about Joseph in the jail and the stone quarry in Egypt and chiselin' out rocks to make ole Pharaoh's gravestone," the boy asked. But his mother went on humming, and the boy went back to his thinking. (p. 52)
. . . his mother always hummed when she was worried. When she held a well child on her lap and rocked back and forth, she sang. But when she held a sick child close in her arms and the rocker moved just enough to squeak a little, she would hum. Sometimes she hummed so softly that the child heard the deep concerned breathing of terror above the sound of the humming. The boy always thought her lips looked as though they were glued together when she hummed. They seemed to be rolled inward and drawn long and thin. Once when she kissed him good night when he was sick, they were cold, he remembered. But when she sang or told stories, her lips were rolled out, big and warm and soft. (p. 14)
The boy’s father was sentenced to hard labor, but his family didn’t know where. For years, when the work in the fields was done for the season, the boy would travel from county to county, checking road camps and prison farms, searching for his father. In addition to wanting to find his father, the boy dreams of owning books, of being able to read:
In bed, the pressure of the bed slats through the straw tick felt good against the boy’s body. His pillow smelled fresh, and it was smooth and soft. He was tired, but he lay awake for a long time. He thought of the store windows full of so many things. He thought of the beautiful candles in windows. He dreamed his father’s hands were chained against the prison bars and he was still standing there with his head down. He dreamed that a wonderful man had come up to him as he was trying to read the store signs aloud and had said, “Child, you want to learn, don’t you?” (p. 72)
. . .
Sounder is the story of one boy’s journey to adulthood, down roads that no person should have to walk. The story bears witness to mankind's cruelty and injustice, and it is a testimony to the strength of the human spirit, against fear and poverty and unceasing uncertainty. It is a story of courage and endurance. It would be a great book to read with kids, to start conversations about morality and ethics and justification for our actions.
His journeys in search of his father accomplished one wonderful thing. In the towns he found that people threw newspapers and magazines into trash barrels, so he could always find something with which to practice his reading.
In his lonely journeying, the boy had learned to tell himself the stories his mother had told him at night in the cabin. He liked the way they always ended with the right thing happening. And people in stories were never feared of anything. Sometimes he tried to put together things he had read in the newspapers he found and make new stories. But the ends never came out right, and they made him more afraid... (pp.80-81)
Over time, the boy had managed to teach himself to read, and eventually, his wanderings lead him to a mentor who took him in, nurtured and taught him. The boy has grown into a man by the time his father returned home, having been grievously injured in a dynamite blast at the prison quarry. Crippled, longer able to work (and therefore of no use), he was sent home:
Sounder was a young dog again. His voice was the same mellow sound that had ridden the November breeze from the lowlands to the hills... Sounder's master had come home. (p. 108)
…in Bible-story journeys, ain’t no journey hopeless. Everybody finds what they suppose to find. (p. 78)
Armstrong, William H., Sounder, HarperPerennial, first published in 1969.