Sounder by William H. Armstrong
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The tall man stood at the edge of the porch. The roof sagged from the two rough posts which held it, almost closing the gap between his head and the rafters.
Somewhere in the deep South, a young black boy lives with his family in a small cabin. One morning, he is surprised to discover pork sausage and ham cooking. For a family of impoverished sharecroppers, this is an unexpected luxury. Even their hound/bulldog mix, Sounder, gets a treat. The joy is short-lived, however, as the white Sheriff and his deputies arrive at their door and take the boy’s father away in chains. The boy grows into a young man with Sounder by his side.
I’ll start by noting the elephant in the room: this book, published in 1969 (and winner of the 1970 Newbery Medal), is a story about a black family written by a white man. The book opens with an author’s note beginning, “Fifty years ago, I learned to read at a round table in the center of a large, sweet-smelling, steam-softened kitchen. My teacher was a gray-haired black man who taught the one-room Negro school several miles away from where we lived in the Green Hill district of the county.” This would have been in the late 1910s; Armstrong was born in Virginia in 1911. He goes on to explain that his teacher told him many stories, including “the story of Sounder, a coon dog.” This book is, says Armstrong, “the black man’s story, not mine.”
Perhaps that is why none of the characters, other than the dog, are given names. For that matter, the place is never specified. Or maybe the vagueness is intended to leave as much as possible to the reader’s imagination. In any case, our protagonist is always referred to as simply “the boy” – which feels a little awkward and uncomfortable. The particular racist use of the term is touched on in the novel itself: “‘Stick out your hands, boy,’ ordered the second man. The boy started to raise his hands, but the man was already reaching over the stove, snapping handcuffs on the outstretched wrists of his father.”
Throughout the short novel, we see the institutional and casual racism of the place and time through the boy’s eyes. He’s led a fairly sheltered life, rarely leaving the warm circle of his own family. His interactions with the people he encounters over the years reflect the prevailing attitudes.
I think this would be a great book to read with a group (a classroom or a book group) paired with an Own Voices book like Linda Williams Jackson’s Midnight without a Moon or Sharon M. Draper’s Stella by Starlight.
Source: Checked out from the public library
Reading Challenges: Counts for the Old School Kidlit Challenge (published 1969), the Newbery Reading Challenge (Medal Winner: 3 points), and Read Harder (Task 11: A children’s classic published before 1980).