I am starting English Literature with Bear and am quite excited about it. She is not a big fan of English like her siblings are, but I hope to make things more interesting by preparing multi-faceted lessons. I thought long and hard about which book to choose for our first study… then I came across Sounder by William H Armstrong, a book we had done as a family read-aloud when she was much younger.
Sounder is an intensely moving story – simply told so even the young can appreciate it, yet so full of meaning and nuances that an adult cannot help but be drawn into it. The characters just get right down deep into your heart, mind and bones. It is about loyalty and deep abiding love. It is about loss and struggle. Above all, it is about hope.
The story centres around a poor sharecropping black family who struggle to get by. In the winter months, when there is no crop or cash, the father goes hunting with his dog, Sounder. Lately, however, the hunting is poor and he grows more and more desperate by the day. The boy awakens one morning to the smell of ham cooking and for the first time in a long while, the family has a decent meal. There is an undercurrent of tension though, and we realise why soon enough. Three days later, the sheriff and his men barge in and arrest the father for theft. The ever-loyal Sounder tries to protect the father, but is horribly injured in the process and the family are left struggling to cope with this painful loss.
I’ll go into the detailed chapter summaries and theme analysis in future posts, God willing. For now, here are some resources you might find interesting before/while reading the book.
The place and time are not specified in Sounder (a clever technique of the author, but more on that later!) but we can guess that the story is set in the deep South, post slavery, around the beginning of the twentieth century. Slavery was abolished in 1865 and this was to provide equality under the law to the freed slaves. However, the reality was that slavery continued to exist, only in another shape and form. The freed blacks were unskilled and uneducated and too poor to buy land or seeds to farm, so many stayed with their former masters as share croppers. They would farm the land and share the profits with their landlords. With no money for supplies, the farmers would have to use their future crops as collateral and be forced to grow cash crops on their land to pay off debts. They would not be able to grow food and would then need to borrow more money to feed their families. This was, in a strange way, worse than slavery – as sharecroppers, they were in perpetual debt, fear and isolation. In slavery, they at least continued to be fed and had a place to live.