So, coming into Sounder, I was expecting a happy story about a little boy and his hunting dog who frolic and whoop around the countryside together (think Where the Red Fern Grows). Wrong!
Life was happy for the boy. His lithe coon dog, Sounder was out gamboling in the fields and his mother was just cutting into a savory, mouth-watering ham. The boy could remember having ham only once before, and that was over a year ago! But now, with the smells floatin’ around in the air, the boy can almost taste that ham. Sounder should be happy, too – he’ll be gettin’ some of the broth.
Finally his father comee in from the fields. But he is not alone. He is followed by three white men – rough men – who grab and handcuff his father claiming that he stole the ham and that now he will have to go to jail. As they leave with him, one of them takes a shot at Sounder, which scrapes down his side, sending blood everywhere.
Everything was so happy. And now – father gone, Sounder terribly wounded… Can things get any worse for the boy and his family? Will Sounder recover? And will the boy ever see his father again?
One thing that I really liked about Sounder was the many references to Biblical stories. The boy loves the stories about David and Joseph, and often begs his mother to tell them to him. Now, unfortunately, they mess up a few of the stories.
Once his mother had told him a story about three people named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who were in jail. Some mean governor or sheriff got mad and had them thrown right into the hail stove, big as a furnace, but the Lord blew out the fire and cooled the big stove in a second. And when the jail keeper opemed the stove door, there stood Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, singing. [pg. 50]
This religiosity translates into the every day. When the boy returns from a trip which he took to search for his father, he brings news that he has been offered a job. His mother responds,
“It’s a sign; I believe in signs.” The rocker began to move back and forth, rattling the loose boards in the porch floor. “Go child. The Lord has come to you.” [pg. 101]
She repeats this sentiment once more, a few days later.
On one occasion, the boy disobeys his mother. It is an explicit disobedience – she specifically commanded him not to go outside and he does – but it is not emphasized in the story. Later, when his mother doesn’t want him to take a trip, he replies,
“Why are you so feared for me to go?” he would ask, for now he was old enough to argue with his mother. “In Bible stories everybody’s always goin’ on a long journey.” [pg. 77]
He then goes on to remind his mother of several Bible stories. I thought this was interesting – that he was reasoning with his mother from Scripture – but I was unsure what it meant that he was ‘old enough to argue with her’.
When Sounder is initially shot, Armstrong says,
Sounder was running, falling, floundering, rising. The hind part of his body stayed up and moved from side to side, trying to lift the front part from the earth. He twisted, fell, and heaved his great shoulders. His hind paws dug into the earth. He pushed himself up. He staggered forward, sideways, then fell again. One front leg did not touch the ground. A trail of blood, smeared and blotted, followed him. There was a large spot of mingled blood, hair, and naked flesh on one shoulder. His head swung from side to side. He fell again and pushed his body along with his hind legs. One side of his head was a mass of blood. The blast had torn off the whole side of his head and shoulder. [pgs. 27-28]
When Sounder finally does return, he is described as,
the living skeleton of what had been a mighty coon hound. The tail began to wag, and the hide made little ripples back and forth over the ribs. One side of the head and shoulders was reddish brown and hairless; the acid of the oak leaves had tanned the surface of the wound the color of leather. One front foot dangled above the floor. The stub of an ear stuck out on one side, and there was no eye on that side, only a dark socket with a splinter of bone showing above it. The dog raised his good ear and whined. [pg.70]
Sounder is a story about hardships and deep emotions. When the boy goes to visit his father in jail, the jail keeper treats the boy very meanly, ripping apart the cake he had brought to check for weapons, and being generally cruel. The boy burns with a hatred towards this man and what he stands for.
The boy hated the man with the red face with the same total but helpless hatred he had felt when he saw his father chained, when he saw Sounder shot. He had thought how he would like to chain the deputy sheriff behind his own wagon and then scare the horse so that it would run faster than the cruel man could. The deputy would fall and bounce and drag on the frozen road. His fine leather jacket would be torn more than he had torn his father’s overalls. He would yell and curse, and that would make the horse go faster. And the boy would just watch, not trying to stop the wagon. . . .
The boy would like to see the big red-faced man crumpled on the floor with the crumbs. Besides the red face, the boy had noticed the fat, bulging neck that folded down over the man’s collar and pushed up in wrinkled circles under his chin. The bull neck of the man reminded the boy of the bull he had seen die in the cattle chute at the big house where his father worked. The horse doctor had been trying to vaccinate the bull in the neck, but the rope through the ring in the bull’s nose didn’t keep the bull from tossing his head from side to side, knocking the horse doctor against the side of the chute. Then the horse doctor had gotten mad and said, “Get a chain. I’ll make him stand still.”
When the chain was snapped around the bull’s neck, the farm hands pulled it over the crossbar of the chute posts and hooked it. But when the horse doctor stuck the bull in the neck, he lunged backward, set his front feet with his whole weight against the chain, and choked himself to death before one of the farm hands could jab him with a pitchfork and make him slacken the chain. The legs of the bull folded under him and the chain buried itself in the fat of his neck. When the farm hands finally got the chain unhooked from the crossbar, the bull’s head fell in the dirt, and blood oozed out of its mouth and nostrils. . . .
The bull-necked man would sag to his knees, the boy thought, and crumple into a heap on the floor. Just the way the bull did, the boy thought, and blood would ooze out of his mouth and nose. [pgs. 59-61]
When out searching for his father, the boy is purposely wounded by a mean guard who throws a crowbar at him. As the boy leaves, he looks back and thinks of where he would hit the guard with the crowbar if he could.
The white spot between his hair and eyes was the spot. The iron would split it open with a wide gash, and blood would darken the white spot and make it the color of the man’s sunburned face. And the stone that David slung struck Goliath on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face on the ground, the boy thought. But he left the iron on the ground. [pg. 89]
The boy remembers an old superstition that if you put something under your pillow and make a wish, it’ll come true. He tries this and wishes that Sounder won’t die. Sounder doesn’t die, but no reference is made to the boy’s wish (i.e., nothing is attributed to its power).
For a brief moment, the boy thinks that a man might be a conjurer, but his fears are quickly reassured.
The mean white men call the boy’s father a ‘n—–’. They are obviously the antagonists.
Conclusion. A very sad story, but not one that is ‘off-limits’.
Review © 2012 Laura Verret