Sounder by W. H. Armstrong - Free Online Book Summary


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On the outermost reach of a white man’s field, there is a tiny, quaint cabin where a black sharecropper lives with his family and a coon dog named Sounder. In the spring, summer, and fall, Father works in the fields to provide for his family. In winter, when the work in the fields comes to a halt, the black sharecropper goes to hunt coons with Sounder, his hound. His wife washes people’s clothes and sells walnut kernels to supplement the family’s meager income. Their eldest son helps them out with the chores. Although they are a poor family, they are close and loving.

When it becomes difficult to hunt due to the extreme cold, Father steals a pig in order to feed his children; although he knows the theft is wrong, he feels it is better than seeing his family starve. The robbery, however, is discovered, and the Sheriff and his men come out to arrest the ‘thieven nigger.’ Sounder is outraged to see his master being chained and dragged; he tries to attack the Sheriff. When everyone, including Father, is in the Sheriff’s wagon, the deputy turns and fires a shot at Sounder. The dog collapses and then runs away. The boy is crushed over the injury to his dog; he puts his heart, soul, and strength into searching for Sounder, but the dog has obviously retreated far into the backwoods. Mother believes that the dog has gone to the woods to heal his wounds and will return.

At Christmas, Mother bakes a cake for her husband, who is still in jail. She tells her son to deliver the cake to his father. The jail keeper is very nasty to the boy; while pretending to check if there are any weapons baked in it, he smashes the lovely cake. The boy is extremely hurt, and his father, sensing the boy’s misery, forbids him to visit the jail in the future. The boy walks back home in helpless anger; however, he does not tell his mother about the jailer’s rudeness. He does remember to tell his mother that Father would be sending word to her by the visiting preacher.

The next morning a languid and incapacitated Sounder returns home. It is difficult for him to move, and his thunderous voice has been replaced by a feeble whine. The boy is crushed to see the change in him. He also misses his father and worries over the fact that there has been no news about him for a long time. Finally the family hears that he has been sent away to do hard labor. This news casts a gloom over the little house.

In the spring, the boy takes his father’s place on the fields, working long and hard. When the farm work is finally finished, the boy decides to undertake a journey to look for his father. Although Mother is initially apprehensive, she eventually relents to the idea. It then becomes a pattern with the boy that each year after the fieldwork is over, he visits road camps and quarries, searching for news of Father. On these journeys, the boy picks up newspapers and magazines from trash barrels and practices his reading.

Years pass, and there is still no news of Father. When twelve men are killed in a dynamite blast in the quarries, the family is afraid he is dead; they are greatly relieved to find his name is not among the deceased. The boy continues his search. One day he stands outside the barbed wire fences of a road camp, hoping to see his father. All of a sudden, something crashes in front of him and a splinter of iron wedges into his skin. The guard, instead of running to help the boy, laughs at his distress. The boy is badly shaken by the guard’s callous treatment; he turns tearfully towards home. As he walks, he passes a schoolhouse and is drawn towards it. He goes inside and tells the teacher that he is looking for some water to wash his wound. The teacher is moved to pity the lad and takes him home to bandage his fingers. At the teacher’s insistence, the boy narrates his story.

When the boy returns home, Mother asks him who has dressed his wounds. The boy tells her about his meeting with the teacher and also about a proposal that he has put forth. The teacher has asked the boy to come and stay with him and attend school. The mother is exceedingly pleased and feels that “the Lord has come” to her boy. During the winter he lives with the teacher and attends school; during the spring and summer, he comes home to work in the fields. Mother and son are once again happy; she sings on the porch and the boy sings in the fields.

On a late August afternoon, Father returns home. Like Sounder, he is emaciated, and his body is badly disfigured; like the dog, he also seems to have lost his enthusiasm for life. In the fall, Father decides he and Sounder will hunt for coons and possums, a plan that enlivens both dog and master. One night on a hunt, Father dies in the woods. Because of Mother’s practicality, the family is able to give him a decent burial.

After Father’s death, Sounder becomes even more sluggish. The boy thinks he will die soon, grieving for his master. Before leaving for school, the boy digs a grave for the dog so his mother will not have to do it. Two weeks before Christmas, Sounder dies. The boy is grieved that he has lost his father and his pet, but he knows that the two of them are still somewhere together, the dog stalking behind the master.

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