William Armstrong's story about a family of black sharecroppers and their dog, Sounder, is very sad. It is bitter cold, hunting is poor, so the father steals a ham and pork sausage to feed his wife and four children. When he is arrested and hauled away in a wagon, Sounder breaks free from the oldest son to chase it and is shot, but survives. The father is sentenced to many years of hard labor on a chain gang. His oldest son takes over his work in the fields, providing for the family and even learning to read. He looks for his father when he is not working, encountering more prejudice and cruel treatment. Both Sounder and the father return but are badly maimed and die before the end of the book.
Sounder has earned some criticism in the ensuing years, primarily because a white author is writing about a black experience. Armstrong says in an author’s note at the beginning of Sounder that it is the story of an African American teacher (Charles Jones) who worked for Armstrong’s father after school and in the summer, and who taught Armstrong to read.
In an interview in the March 1978 Writer's Digest, Armstrong said race was not a factor when writing the book. "I was writing about people's hearts and feelings. There's no color to feeling. There's no color to heart. There are a lot of white people who have suffered indignities, but they strangely hold out against it and save themselves. And there's a lot of black people who have done the same thing."
Many of these same critics take Armstrong to task for not naming any of the characters other than the dog. For example, Albert Schwartz (in MacCann and Woodard’s The Black American in Books for Children: Readings in Racism, 1972) says leaving them unnamed “raises the issue of white supremacy” and “deep-seated prejudice has long denied human individualization to the Black person.”
In the Writer’s Digest interview, Armstrong states, "If the boy's age was not given the reader could become a part of the story: 'The boy must be about my age.' Place and time kept vague, no name or description of the boy. . . . And no names for the family. With names they would have represented one family; without names they became universal--representing all people who suffer privation and injustice, but through love, self-respect, devotion, and desire for improvement, make it in the world." Indeed, the setting is vague enough that it could be anytime between the end of the Civil War and the Great Depression, and anywhere walnuts grow (which is most of the eastern half of the United States, not just the South).
According to Lois Kuznets (in the Spring 1978 Illinois English Bulletin), the original manuscript of Sounder was much longer. Armstrong's publishers split it into two novels; the second is Sour Land (1971) and tells the story of the boy (now named Moses Waters) as an adult.
Well-known actor Avery Brooks (Star Trek DS9’s Captain Sisko) did a marvelous job narrating the audiobook, even singing some of the hymns in the story. His bass voice was perfect for that and for everyone but the mother. He gives the white characters deep southern accents, not necessarily reflected in their words in the book.
Although Sounder is written at about a grade 4.9-5.3 reading level, its subject matter is more appropriate for middle grades (6-8) and up. It is hard to fathom such a harsh punishment for stealing a ham and sausages, and the cruelties the black family and the dog endure. There are also some scenes (on pages 59-61) where the boy imagines, in grisly detail, what he would do to the deputy who shot Sounder (drag him behind a wagon) and the jailer who destroys a homemade cake the boy brings his father, awaiting trial (choke him with a chain).
[Cross-posted at my book blog, Bookin' It.]