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An image of the bookcover for Sounder


Sounder (1969)

William Armstrong and his writing

Armstrong was a history teacher for over 30 years, receiving several awards for distinguished service in education. He wrote novels, books and aids for education, historical biographies, and a history textbook. But none of his books reached the stature of Sounder.

Introduction to the novel

Sounder won the Newbery Award for the best American children's novel of the year, and was a monumental success right from its date of publication. It was translated into 28 languages, and was made into a movie, which in turn was nominated for an academy award. The New York Times chose Sounder as the best book of the year when it was published.1

Sounder is the story of a boy and his African-American family who sharecrop the land during the late 19th century. The boy’s life changes in an instant when his father is caught stealing a ham to feed his family. The story is a powerful tale of survival and perseverance in the face of racism and brutality.   

Plight of the sharecroppers

While the Little House books examine the plight of the pioneer, Sounder addresses the plight of the sharecropper. Sharecropping began after the American Civil War. Once slavery was abolished, anyone could theoretically own the land, but in reality, African Americans rarely did.

Large plantations owned by whites were subdivided into small units and rented out to African Americans for a portion of the crops. Many sharecroppers were forced into a cycle of debt and poverty as they pledged next year’s crops to pay for this year’s supplies.

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Criticism of the Book

Although the book has always been extremely popular, it was criticized for two reasons.

  1. Armstrong was denounced for writing about African Americans when he was not so himself. Most would agree that an author's race is certainly irrelevant.

  2. Armstrong was also been criticized for not giving names to his characters. Some readers felt that by doing so, he dehumanized them. But by not particularizing characters, he universalizes their experience. Armstrong himself said that he was influenced by biblical techniques that avoided particularization:

    No one told me the Bible was not for young readers, so I found some exciting stories in it. Not until years later did I understand why I liked the Bible stories so much. It was because everything that could possibly be omitted was omitted. There was no description of David so I could be like David. Ahab and Naboth were just like some people down the road.2

Armstrong also deliberately avoids identifying the specific year or place of the action. The novel has an elemental starkness and simplicity that makes it memorable and moving.

The stealing of the ham

Armstrong presents the stealing of the ham without comment or overt moralizing, letting readers draw their own conclusions. He juxtaposes the stealing of the ham with the brutality and inhumanity of the sheriff’s men. Other incidents such as the smashing of the mother’s cake by the jailor, and the wounding of the boy by the derisive prison guard make the stealing of food seem trivial by comparison.

Parallel scenes

The most memorable and powerful part of the book – the haunting return of the father after being disfigured by a prison quarry explosion – echoes the earlier return of the mutilated dog. What is particularly moving is the fact that brutal treatment never diminishes the father’s spirit and dignity.

The road

Both these scenes occur on the road in front of the family house. Once the father returns from jail, he and Sounder instinctively realize that the road is no longer their place: “Sometimes the two limped together to the edge of the fields, or wandered off into the pine woods. They never went along the road.”3 The horrors depicted on the road are out of all proportion to the original offence.

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The feeling of eternal solitude that the road evokes is hauntingly recalled whenever the mother sings, “Look down, look down that lonesome road. . . Ain’t nobody else gonna walk it for you.”4

Before the father returns home, he is placed on a road gang, and the boy continually takes to the road in search of him:

The months and seasons of searching dragged into years. . . .
“Time is passing” the woman would say. “I wish you wouldn’t go lookin’, child.” But . . . she seemed to understand the compulsion that started him on each long, fruitless journey with new hope.5

The road becomes an icon for the loneliness, injustice, and isolation caused by racial prejudice and inhumane social conditions.6

Ending of hope

Ironically the boy never finds what he is looking for but he does discover something else. He meets a teacher who takes him under his wing and shows him how to read. Like Jody in The Yearling, the boy takes over his father’s role at the end of novel.

Notes

1. George A. Woods, “The Best for Young Readers,” New York Times,December 7, 1969.

2. William H. Armstrong, “Newbery Acceptance Speech,” Horn Book Magazine 44, no. 4 (1970): 352.

3. William H. Armstrong, Sounder (New York: Harper Trophy, 1969), 110.

4. Armstrong, Sounder, 17.

5. Armstrong, Sounder, 84-85.

6. In an endnote to her article, “The Symbolic Center: Little House in the Big Woods,” Virginia L. Wolf refers to the opposition of the house and the road in Sounder, presenting itas an example of the structural patterning prevalent in children’s literature. Children’s Literature in Education 13 (September 1982), 113n5.