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


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Mother asks the boy who has taken care of his wounds. The boy tells about what has happened to him and how the teacher has helped. He also tells her that the teacher wants him to go to his school; he has offered for the boy to live in his cabin and do his domestic chores to earn his keep. The mother is agreeable to the plan. She is eager for her son to learn and improve himself; she feels that the teacher’s kind offer is a gift from the Lord.

The boy leaves home to go and live with the teacher. He spends the entire winter at school and returns home in the summer to work in the fields. His misery and loneliness have now been replaced by light-heartedness. He sings merrily as he works. Every night he reads Bible stories to his siblings; his favorite tale is still the one about Joseph.

On a late August afternoon that is particularly hot, Sounder is behaving in a peculiar manner; he hobbles back and forth on the road several times. Mother blames the dog’s restlessness on the heat. Then the boy and his mother notice a man coming up the road. Sounder starts running and barking; he is the first to recognize that it is Father. Like Sounder when he returned home, Father is a changed man; disfigured by a dynamite blast, he is bent over and walks with a limp.

For Father, the days pass in a dull monotony of eating, sleeping, and talking. Both he and Sounder sit listlessly, their crippled bodies staring into nothingness. As October approaches, bringing a return of the hunting season, the flagging spirits of Father and Sounder seem to quicken. They begin to hunt again, a shadow of their former selves. Then one night, just before dawn, Sounder’s scratching on the door awakens the boy. The dog leads him into the piney woods, where the boy finds his lifeless father. Mother arranges a decent burial with some money she has managed to save for a special occasion.

After the death of his master, Sounder becomes increasingly sluggish; without Father, the dog seems to have no will to live. The boy believes that Sounder will grieve himself to death before long; therefore, before he leaves for school, he digs a grave for the dog under a big oak tree. Sounder is dead and is buried before the boy returns home for Christmas break. Although he has lost both Father and Sounder, the boy knows that somewhere in eternity, they are living together; he imagines his father walking upright with Sounder bounding after him.


Up until this chapter, the entire novel has been bleak and hopeless. The father has been arrested and sent away for trying to feed his family; the boy has been forced into an early manhood, struggling on the farm to try and provide for the family; Mother is lonely and desolate, constantly humming a sad tune; although Sounder survives the gun shot wound he receives, he is a changed animal with a small bark and no spirit. Then in this final chapter, the boy meets a kind teacher who changes his life. Recognizing the boy’s desire and potential for learning, the teacher suggests that the lad attend his school; he offers for the boy to live with him in order to earn his keep. Mother agrees that the boy should go to school each year after the harvest until planting time. In fact, she feels the teacher’s offer is a gift from God. She blesses her son, saying, “Go child, the Lord has come to you.” For the first time, the boy has some hope; there is light in his lonesome valley of darkness.

The boy’s return to the fields after spending the winters at school is markedly different from his returns to the fields after the quests to find his father. The latter journeys were sad, depressing, and full of disturbing experiences; in contrast, his stay at school raises his spirits, his hopes, and his dreams. For the first time in the book, he appears truly happy, cheerfully singing as he works in the fields.

Father finally returns home, but he is a changed man. Like Sounder, he is physically and spiritually wounded. So much has been broken within him that there cannot be any real mending; just like the schoolteacher had observed, “It is hard to reset the plant if its wilted too much.” With the return of the hunting season, both Father and Sounder try to re-establish life as it was, but it is a futile attempt. Both dog and man have had too much of life taken from them. As a result, Father soon dies while he is out hunting. Sounder leads the boy to the place where his lifeless form rests. Sounder soon follows Father in death.

Although Sounder and Father are gone, they live on in the boy, for “if a flower blooms once, it goes on blooming somewhere forever.” The boy is certain that dog and master are dwelling together somewhere for eternity. The boy now understands the meaning of Montaigne’s words that had once been a mystery to him: “Only the unwise think that what has changed is dead.” The boy accepts that there is, indeed, something eternal about life. He knows that somewhere the deep resonant voice of Sounder can still be heard.

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