Sounder was a great coon dog whose voice boomed across the night when he and his master caught something. But one cold season, no game was to be found. Times were very hard for a sharecropper. Night after night the man came home empty handed to his hungry wife and children. Then one morning the children woke to the smell of ham frying.
The boy, oldest child, worries that something isn't right when he notices his mother humming tight-lipped, rather than singing. He was right to worry as later that night the sheriff and deputies come and arrest his father, and in the process, Sounder is shot. The boy's mother doesn't think Sounder will live, but he does, missing a leg and an ear, and never again using the great booming sound he was known for.
Sounder tells the story of the boy as he searches for his father among work gangs, coming home to work in the fields when he can. But the boy longs for more. He wants to read. Not just shop window signs, but books and stories and the Bible. He knows the power of words. In one of his journeys he meets a kind school teacher who takes him in, sees the thirst for knowledge this boy has and offers to teach him.
After many years, when the boy is home working one summer, the boy and his mother see a figure approaching in the distance. The man is disfigured, dragging one leg, shoulder hunched. But Sounder runs out to him, making his voice ring. His master had finally come home.
I enjoyed reading Sounder. It didn't take long, but left me feeling a mixture of sadness and hope. One thing that is kind of odd about this book is that none of the human characters are named. Just Sounder.
A couple of quotes:
"He wished his mother or father could read. And if they had a book, he would hold the lamp by the chair so they could see the words and never get tired. "One day I will learn to read," he said to himself. He would have a book with stories in it, then he wouldn't be lonesome even if his mother didn't sing." (p. 18)
"He had learned to read his book with the torn cover better now. He had read in it: "Only the unwise think that what has changed is dead." He had asked the teacher what it meant, and the teacher had said that if a flower blooms once, it goes on blooming somewhere forever. It blooms on for whoever has seen it blooming. It was not quite clear to the boy the, but it was now." (p. 114)
Armstrong, William, H. Sounder. HarperCollins, 1969.