Sounder, by William Armstrong, Book Review

sounderHas anyone out there not yet read this incredible book? Written by William H. Armstrong in 1969, it won the Newberry Medal, the most distinguished award for children’s literature, and not by any stroke of luck. Sounder is a masterful coming of age story, but it’s also far, far more.

Set in the deep South in an undetermined decade -the movie (Sounder, 1972) places it in the Depression, but it could be earlier – it explores the racial tensions that divided the region after the Civil War. The main character, a boy whose name is never given, is the son of black sharecroppers who struggle to earn enough to eat. After a particularly disheartening hunt, the father steals a ham from a white man’s smokehouse, and this one desperate act changes his family forever.

Sounder includes the usual sympathies: the hard life of poor blacks, the sharecropping system that kept families in virtual slavery, the mistreatment and haughty attitude of whites holding on to old ideas of supremacy, and the prejudice of the era, but it does so gently, through the eyes of a bewildered child searching for his father.

While several characters, though unnamed, lend depth and power to the story, it is this boy we grow to love. For 118 pages, we see the world through eyes that do their best to comprehend injustice. His simple insights, the profound comparisons he makes to Bible characters, the hope he draws from family and his endless determination make us admire him.

But the boy also takes us on a journey. Through personal tragedy, endless seeking, and the love of one dog, the boy gains an understanding of his world. His loss becomes a metaphore for the times in which he lived, and I couldn’t help but cheer when he determines to rise above circumstances through the power of literacy.

The book ends, finally, with a strong quote from Montaigne, “Only the unwise think that what has changed is dead.” While I believe such active prejudice and racial contention is, for the greater part, a thing of the American past, it is a past that must be taught so it will not be repeated toward any race or culture. That is one of the reasons I chose to read it aloud with my kids. For a few hours, Sounder gave us just a taste of what it must have been like to grow up among such hatred and poverty. It’s an experience we must not forget. Highly, highly recommended for ages 10+.

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