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15 may 2014

Sounder has been in its day a minor classic novella, for children but much admired by adults, as well as the source for a highly-esteemed film. I'm not sure what its status is in the mid-2010s. Its Newbery Medal will keep it in print indefinitely. It's got a classic story of tragedy and perseverance. But as a story of African-American struggle, written by a white man, its ethos is increasingly tenuous. What value does Sounder have anymore, as document or as drama?

Armstrong's story is spare and moving. He stresses that it's not his own: it's a tale handed down by a mentor of his, an elderly black man who taught him to read, around the year 1920. The story is thus from the 19th-century, a time after emancipation but in the heyday of the sharecropping system, and the height of the virtual re-enslavement of a generation of African-Americans by means of incarceration at hard labor.

Sounder is a dog, a mighty hunter. He is a companion to the focal character, a boy who is the eldest son in a sharecropping family, on the cusp of adult responsibility. But Sounder is also emblematic of the small spheres of independence that people locked into economic servitude manage to establish. When Sounder and the main character's father go out to hunt possum or raccoon, they do more than just get a little free protein: they defy the power of the segregation regime to define them as permanently inferior. In a sense, the family in Sounder breaks free of a cycle of poverty by engaging in hunting and gathering. Every night, the boy's mother cracks walnuts that she will sell in town to buy small luxuries; in her own way, she resists the system as much as her husband with his coon dog.

The family's problems start (and I'm about to spoil every last bit of the plot, so stop reading now if you hate that kind of thing) when some ham and sausage show up on their table, far from any of the holidays associated with such luxury. The narrative never makes entirely clear whether the father has stolen the food or not. Of course, even if he has, the crime comes nowhere near meriting his punishment: years on a chain gang, incommunicado. He is arrested in a scene still very traumatic and moving to read, and Sounder is shot and left for dead; the dog drags himself into the woods and disappears.

It is a cliché of the genre that when a boy is attached to a dog in a children's book or film, the dog must die. Sounder gets to die of old age, something of an innovation, but what happens to him first is arguably worse. He is hideously injured, and loses both the mighty bark that gave him his name and his enthusiasm for the hunt. His diminished presence becomes another kind of emblem, for the twilight existence the family leads for years while the father is absent. The boy makes it a crusade to locate his father, and never does. The father eventually comes home, himself disabled, and lives his last days in the company of his equally disabled dog.

While searching for his father, the boy (none of the human characters is ever named) aspires to learn to read, a skill his parents have never acquired. He scrabbles together some literacy from signage and discarded texts, eventually latching onto a copy of Montaigne's essays. He meets a teacher who becomes his mentor, and begins the long road toward becoming the kind of elder who helped the young William Armstrong learn to read.

I often go on about the necessity for Newbery candidates to extol the virtues of reading, but Sounder does so more organically than most. By coincidence, like Alan (no relation) Armstrong's Whittington, which I just read, it's more about a struggle to attain literacy than an innate aptitude for reading, and struggles are always more interesting than talents. But literacy is also a strong thematic element of Sounder. Part of what separates the incarcerated father from the mother is that neither can read. Communication would depend on interpreters at both ends. (And be hard enough even at that, given the basic lack of human rights that prevails.) Part of the boy's motivation is that reading might someday allow him to be such an interpreter.

Sounder is a very good book. But as I said above, it presents problems of ethos. Why should we accept stories of black experience through an interpreter? What bias does the interpreter add as the story passes through him? I'm not about to answer those questions here; I just want to acknowledge them. Much of the history of 20th-century children's literature in America consists of upper-middle-class white authors conveying stories from all the minority cultures of the world. Perhaps we should just live with that as historical fact, and continue to read the strong ones while letting the weaker ones lapse out of print. Sounder is one of the strong ones.

Armstrong, William H. Sounder. Illustrated by James Barkley. 1969. New York: Scholastic, 1995.