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


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The boy sits pensively in the cabin, waiting for his mother’s return; he knows that she has really gone to check on Father. As it grows dark, the boy begins to worry about her; in keeping with his mood, dark shadows begin to fall over the field. Then finally he spies the advancing form of his mother. Before she enters, the boy wisely and maturely advises his younger siblings not to pester their mother with questions or demands.

Both mother and son have disappointing news. Mother states that Father has been jailed and cannot be released. The boy tells her that he has searched for Sounder and cannot even find his body. Mother gives him a bit of encouragement when she says that perhaps Sounder has wandered far away to heal his wounds. The next day the boy goes deep into the woods, constantly calling Sounder’s name; unfortunately, his search again ends in disappointment.

Since it is Christmas time, Mother bakes a special cake for Father. She instructs her son to take it to the jail. Although he obeys her orders, the boy dreads passing through the white town on the way to see his father, for white people intimidate him. At least things are less frightening for him than usual, for everything has a holiday cheer about it; the church bells ring, the shops are filled with toys, and the houses are sparkling with tinsel. These sights and sound enchant the young black boy, who has never had Christmas decorations.

When the boy reaches the prison, a large red-faced man tells him to wait, slamming the door in his face. At twelve noon, the red-faced man again opens the door and brusquely jerks the cardboard box from the boy’s hands. Looking inside, he squeezes the cake with his fingers, pretending to check and see if there is a weapon hidden inside. The cake is so destroyed that it is only a heap of crumbs. The boy is scared and angry; in helpless vengeance, he dreams of crushing the red-faced man.

On the way to the jail, the boy had rehearsed the conversation he would have with his father to assure him that everything was fine at home, but the encounter with the red-faced man has made him forget the planned speech. When he sees his dad, the boy is still confused and can say little to comfort his father. His son’s obvious misery pains Father deeply; he instructs the boy not to visit the jail again.


When Mother returns from town, both she and her son have bad news. She tells him that Father has been put in jail and will not be released. He informs her that he has searched for Sounder’s body to no avail. Mother tries to encourage her son by saying that perhaps Sounder has gone far into the woods to heal his wounds. There is an intentional and close parallel between the fate of Father and Sounder. On the same day, both of them are damaged and leave home - Father to serve time in jail and Sounder to recover from his injury. Both are suffering greatly during their absence, and their pain breaks their spirit. When both of them come home later in the novel, they are changed beings and die in close succession.

When the boy continues to search for Sounder, the mother tries to give him some poignant advice. “You must learn to lose child. The Lord teaches the old to lose. The young don’t know how to learn it. Some people is born to keep. Some is born to lose. We was born to lose, I reckon.” Her words capture the fate of the blacks in America at the time; they had been suppressed for so long that they had come to accept suffering and loss as the only way of life.

The Bible stories that Mother has told the boy in the book have subtle parallels to the plot. The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is about three men who were taken from jail and thrown into a fire to burn; but the Lord had cooled the fire and saved the men. They supposedly sang a hymn to God, singing, “The Lord’s got green pastures and cool water.” Since Father is in jail, the boy finds hope in this; surely the Lord will also have mercy on his father while in jail. Another time the boy recalls the story of how Joseph was sold as a slave to work in the stone quarry; this Bible tale foreshadows Father’s future work as a prisoner.

Although it is Christmas time, there will be no celebration for the boy and his family; they have no holiday decorations, and there is no money for presents or food for a feast. Mother does, however, prepare a fancy cake for her husband and sends her son to take it to the jail. The boy is nervous about traveling alone through the white town on the way; he is also concerned about what he will say to his father once he arrives at the jail.

The boy is amazed to see and hear the sights and sounds of Christmas along the way. Houses are decorated, church bells are ringing, people are partying, and shops are filled with toys. This joyful scene is a stark contrast to the misery of the poor young boy, dressed in too big and patched overalls and carrying a cake for his father in jail; it is a marvelous visual contrast between poverty and plenty.

Along the way the boy has thoughtfully and carefully planned what he will say to his father; he wants to be certain that he reassures him that everything is fine at home. But his rude reception at the jail makes him forget everything. The jailer that he encounters is a nasty man, obviously calloused and prejudiced. He slams the door in the boy’s face and makes him sit and wait for a long time; then he cruelly and needlessly crumbles the cake, pretending to be searching for a weapon baked inside. Power has made him so haughty that he cares for no one but himself; prejudice has made him so insensitive that he takes pleasure in destroying the Christmas gift that a poor young black boy has brought his father. It is a sad commentary on man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.

The boy is hurt and angry over his treatment and the destruction of the cake and wants to strike out against his persecutor; but he knows he is helpless against this white bully. His desire to fight back foreshadows the blacks’ future refusal to silently endure the suffering inflicted by the white world.

The boy’s visit with his father is painful for both of them. The boy is so upset about what has happened, that he can barely talk to his father; he can certainly give the man no comfort or cheer. Instead, Father is distressed over the ordeal that his son has endured and saddened to see him so upset and confused. When the boy is ready to leave, Father tells him not to come back to the jail; he does not want to see his son harassed again. It is obvious that both father and son are kind and thoughtful people, in stark contrast to the cruel white jailer.

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