By William H. Armstrong

Sounder is the story of an African American family in the era of sharecropping post the abolition of slavery in America. The story is about told primarily with a focal point on the thoughts and experiences surrounding the family’s oldest son, although I found that the story isn’t really about him as much as it is about his father and his father’s faithful dog named Sounder. Sounder is a loyal companion and skillful hunter, and acquired his named from the caliber of his bark. In describing his bark, Armstrong writes that  it “rolled across the flatlands” and was “louder than any other dog’s in the whole countryside” (4).

Armstrong’s skillful use of figurative language adds a poetic and romantic touch to the development  of Sounder as a character in the story: “Each bark bounced from slope to slope in the foothills like a rubber ball. But it was not an ordinary bark. It filled up the night and made music as though the branches of all the trees were being pulled across silver strings” (4). The reader begins to understand that Sounder is not just any dog, but a very special dog indeed.  Armstrong’s word choice is also particularly striking, like when he describes cabin lights as “punctuating the night.”

Times are tough for this sharecropping family, and we come to realize this is probably how life usually goes for them. Although his father’s guilt in stealing hams is not explicitly said, its more or less implied in the text, such as when the father goes off at night and doesn’t bring Sounder with him. When the sheriff and men come to take him into custody, there are no words from the family said. The lack of explanation of admission of guilt or innocence doesn’t seem to matter for two reasons. Firstly, the reader can emphasize with the difficulty of the times as well as the necessity for a man to provide food and his meet family’s most basic needs at any cost. Secondly, the reader also understands that in these times, it likely didn’t matter if an African American was innocent or guilty. Like in To Kill A Mockingbird, sometimes all it took was the accusation of a crime committed by against a white person by a black person to merit a conviction. Additionally, the reader doesn’t feel bad for the landowner’s stolen hams, probably sitting in abundance in the storehouse, when understanding the unfairness of the whole sharecropping system.

As the father is carried away by these men, Sounder runs after his beloved master, and is shot and severely injured in the process. Although Sounder runs off, the boy finds Sounder’s mangled, bloody ear along the road.  His mother explains that dogs go off to be alone when they die, but that there may be  a small possibility that he might come back once he’s better. Having experienced and witnessed a great deal of lose by her people in her lifetime, she tries to impart her wisdom onto her son: “…you must learn to lose, child. The Lord teachers the old to lose. The young don’t know how to learn it. Some people is born to keep. Some is born to lose. We was born to lose, I reckon. But Sounder might come back.” (52) This quote helps remind the reader about the severity of the situation for African Americans during this time as “born to lose.”

Eventually, both master and dog who have experienced great physical deformity hang on to life until they can go home and die. The boy’s mother comforts him by saying, “When life is so tiresome, there ain’t no peace like the greatest peace- the peace of the Lord’s hand holding you.” (113) The deep spirituality of this woman despite her circumstances is uplifting.

In describing the death of the father and Sounder, Armstrong references an old Native American practice of naming the different monthly full moons based on seasonal changes and cultural elements: “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” (116). I made this connection to Cynthia Rylant’s Long Night Moon, where she describes these different full moons.


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