Saturday, June 27, 2009


I had a feeling this was going to be one of the sad Newbery winners. So I wasn't too surprised by the violence and tragedy that happens to the father of the unnamed boy that is the main character (and Sounder, the family coonhound) about a third of the way through the book.

I wasn't really prepared for the unrelenting bleakness of the rest of the story, though. It starts out grim, with a cold October wind blowing, the boy can't manage to go to school, the hunting is hard, everyone's hungry, and the boy suffers from "night loneliness." Things don't get a whole lot better after his father is sent to jail, of course, and the part about Sounder's injured ear is one of the saddest things I've ever read in a kid's story.

As with Island of the Blue Dolphins, the beauty of the writing saved me from hating this book. I don't think that I would have liked this book at all as a child, though. I wouldn't have appreciated the stark poetry of its language when I was depressed (and bored, because aside from a couple episodes of violence, not much happens) about the story. Quiet endurance is not a favorite kid topic, and unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, say, there seems to be little hope that things will ever change for the family in Sounder.

Armstrong's descriptions of the sounds of a woodstove, the creak of a rocking chair, and the dirty, cold space under a cabin are amazing, and I'm glad that I read them, even if I was unhappy with the story in general. His best descriptions are of Sounder, though. I would guess that not too many kids today have heard the soulful baying in the moonlit woods that he describes so beautifully:

Years later, walking the earth as a man, it would all sweep back over him, again and again, like an echo on the wind.

The pine trees would look down forever on a lantern burning out of oil but not going out. A harvest moon would cast shadows forever of a man walking upright, his dog bouncing after him. And the quiet of the night would fill and echo again with the deep voice of Sounder, the great coon dog (pgs. 115-116).

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