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


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On the most distant fringe of a white man’s field, there is a tiny ramshackle cabin where a black sharecropper lives with his wife, his children, and his dog named Sounder. Life is hard for this black family; even though they are hard working, decent folks, there is usually not enough to eat and never enough money for even the basic necessities of life.

Sounder is an integral part of the family, loved by all. Even though he can be a ferocious coon dog, he serves as a pet for the family; he is also a good and reliable hunting companion. Sounder has appropriately been given his name because of his thundering voice.

At the start of the novel, winter has set in; the fields are barren, and the crop has not been good. Father is forced to find alternative means for feeding his family. Accompanied by his faithful dog Sounder, he ventures forth to hunt for coons every evening; but hunting in winter is very difficult, for the earth is frozen and possums and coons are scarce. He usually returns home in a dejected mood with an empty sack. He is miserable when he cannot provide sufficient food for his family to eat. The whole family tries to help out. The eldest child collects walnuts from the woods; Mother cracks and picks the nuts and sells them to the local store for fifteen cents a pound. She also washes clothes for the people who live in the big house down the road.

To everyone’s surprise, one night Father goes out by himself without Sounder. The next morning the children wake up to the delicious aroma of simmering ham. The boy watches with fascination as Father lifts the lid off the pot with his bare hands and lays the ham on oak slabs. Within a few minutes, the children finish a scrumptious meal.

After eating, Mother resumes her task of picking walnuts; she hums a melancholic tune as she works. Several times Father wipes the steam from the windowpane and peers outside, as if he were looking for something. The boy wishes that his mother would stop and tell him some Bible stories; they always helped to drive away the dreariness of the cabin. The child also wishes that his parents could read and hopes that someday he will be able to.


Through an omniscient third-person narrator, Sounder tells the story of a remarkable black family and their dog, named Sounder. In the preface to the book, the author states that it is really the childhood history of his own teacher, who is the young boy in the novel.

This opening chapter is largely introductory, presenting the main characters, the basic conflict, and the setting. The poor black family, living in the Southern United States, inhabits a run-down cabin on the far reaches of a white man’s field; they have no neighbors and no means of entertainment. The father is a hard working sharecropper, farming the land; but there is never enough food for the family or money for the necessities of life. It is a hard, bleak existence, but it is obvious that the family loves one another and has real human values. Although the parents cannot read, they tell their children stories from the Bible. They also have instilled in them a desire to better themselves.

Sounder, a coon dog, is a key part of the family and a main character in the novel; he is a symbol of humanity and represents the values of faithfulness, love, and devotion. It is ironic that a dog is a much kinder and better being than most of the white folks that will be presented in the novel. He has been given the name of Sounder because of his full-throated, roaring voice that resounds through the woods when he is hunting with his master; in truth, he becomes the “sounder” of real human value in the novel.

This opening chapter clearly sets the mood of loneliness and isolation that pervades the entire novel. Because it is black, this family is forced to live in poverty--on the physical outskirts of civilization and the emotional outskirts of life; the prejudiced white community wants nothing to do with them and often treats them shabbily. The sense of loneliness is intensified by several things in this first chapter. First it is wintertime, and everything is dead and frozen; the land is barren and the wildlife is scarce. Father finds it hard to put adequate food on the table. Secondly, Mother is always humming a haunting melody, the notes of “the lonesome valley.” Additionally, the boy talks about his dreary existence. He longs for his mother to stop her chores and tell him a Bible story to drive the loneliness away. Finally, the fact that the members of this family are given no names emphasizes the fact that they are isolated from life and undervalued by society.

The first chapter also gives character descriptions. The father is a tall, strong man, a hard worker, a dedicated father, and a good hunter. His love and concern for his family come before all else. In the middle of winter, he goes hunting every night, hoping to put food on the table. When his efforts fail, he betrays his own values and steals a pig in order to feed his children. The mother is also a hard worker. She earns extra money for the family by doing household chores for white people and picking walnuts to sell for fifteen cents a pound. The oldest child, a son, is a smart young lad who is always eager to help his parents; he gathers the walnuts for his mother to pick and helps with all the family chores. He longs for a better life, hoping to be able to read someday. The boy, however, is clearly in awe of his father; he consciously observes and tries to mimic his dad’s behavior and actions. The closeness that he feels to him makes his abrupt departure in the next chapter more painful.

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