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The central theme of the novel is the value of having dignity, courage, and love in the face of adversity. This theme comes across through the characters of the boy, Mother, and Sounder.
Almost as important as the main theme of the novel is the secondary theme of alienation and loneliness endured by black people as a result of discrimination against them. They were treated as second-class citizens and forced into a life of humiliation and poverty by their white employers and neighbors.
The mood of the novel is mostly depressing, with a sense of loneliness and suppressed pain throughout. The cruelties inflicted on blacks by the white community greatly contribute to the depressing atmosphere.
William Howard Armstrong was born on September 14, 1914, in Lexington, Virginia to Howard Gratton Armstrong, a farmer, and his wife, Ida Morris. As a child, William had a neighbor who entertained him with wonderful stories. One of his favorite stories was about a coonhound with a wonderful bark. This dog tale was later to serve as the basis for his famous novel, Sounder.
William attended public schools and was a good student. He graduated from Hampden-Sydney College with honors in 1936 and went on to do graduate studies at the University of Virginia. In 1945, he became a history teacher at Kent School, in Kent, Connecticut, where he built his own house and raised sheep on the side. William lived, taught, and wrote in Kent for all of his adult life. In 1943, William married Martha Stone Street Williams, and they had three children.
Armstrong began his literary career by writing non-fiction books. Study is Hard Work was published in 1956, followed by Through Troubled Waters in 1957 and The Peoples of the Ancient World in 1969.
Before he published Sounder, there were also three self-improvement books: 87 ways to Help Your Child in School (1961), Tools of Thinking (1968), and Word Power in 5 Easy Lessons (1969). From 1969 onward, Armstrong wrote both fiction and non-fiction for the rest of his career.
Armstrong published Sounder in 1969, and it became an immediate popular success and was later made into a movie in 1972. The novel attracted much critical opinion. Many black critics resented the fact that a white author had attempted to understand and depict the misery of an impoverished black family that had to endure constant humiliation and discrimination from its white neighbors; they said that Armstrong’s characters were prejudiced black stereotypes and resent that none of the black characters are given names. Other critics felt it realistically captured the injustice done do poor black sharecropping families. Armstrong himself felt that the blackness in the novel made little difference; he claims he was writing about the pain of poverty and the injustice of the system that allows it. He feels that the family could just have easily been white; he also feels that the lack of personal names makes the characters more universal. In spite of the controversy, Sounder won several literary awards, including the Newberry Medal, the Lewis Carroll Book Shelf Award, and the Mark Twain Award.
Armstrong’s other books include Barefoot in the Grass (1970), Sour Land (1971), The MacLeod Place (1972), Hadassah: Esther the Orphan Queen (1972), My Animals (1973), The Mills of God (1873), The Education of Abraham Lincoln (1974), JoAnna’s Miracle (1978), and Tawny and Dingo (1978). None of these books received the same amount of attention as did Sounder.
When slavery was abolished in the Southern United States in 1865, most black slaves had no skills except in farming and no money to buy their own land. As a result, most of the freed slaves stayed on with their past masters, working as sharecroppers. Under the sharecropping arrangement, the freed slave would grow crops on the plantation owned by the white gentleman farmer. He would then share the profits from his crops with the owner, usually in a split of 50%. In many instances the plight of the black sharecropper was worse than when he was a slave. In years of drought or pestilence, when the crops were bad, the slave owner always provided for the slaves and their families, giving them a place to live and food to eat. As a sharecropper, if the crops failed, there was no money to provide the necessities of life. In Sounder, Armstrong presents a realistic picture of the trials and tribulations of an impoverished black sharecropping family at the end of the 19th century.
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