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


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The Boy

The boy is the protagonist of the novel, and his tale is one of growing to maturity. At the onset of the story, he stands on the porch gazing wide-eyed at the tall presence of his black father and running his fingers over his coon dog, Sounder. The image is that of a wide-eyed little boy who worships his parent and his pet dog. It is quickly established that the boy is a caring and obedient child, always willing to assist his mother in the domestic chores. The boy is also sensitive to the family’s plight of poverty; he knows that his parents struggle, and he attempts to help by gathering walnuts for his mother to crack and sell. The boy also refrains from complaining about his lonely existence and his lack of education, although he would love to have friends and know how to read.

The boy’s education comes from his parents. His father teaches him about farming, and his mother teaches him about life. Although she cannot read herself, she tells him all the stories from the Bible, which the boy memorizes for himself. Like his mother, he is deeply inspired by these Bible tales and draws strength from them in difficult situations throughout the novel. He particularly identifies with the story of Joseph, who had to endure many hardships, just like he does.

When his father is arrested and imprisoned and Sounder is shot, the boy has to endure major changes in his life. He worries about Sounder, fearing he has died; his mother tries to comfort him by saying that perhaps the dog has gone deep into the woods to heal himself. The boy searches everywhere for the coonhound, but cannot find him. Without a dog, his life is destined to be even more lonely. When Sounder finally comes home, a mere shadow of his former self, the boy understands his misery and accepts the dog’s listless existence.

After his father’s departure, the boy, who is the oldest child in the family, is expected to do all of the farming in order to provide for the family. He never grumbles about the hard work, even though it robs him of his childhood. He is also exposed to first-hand discrimination. When he takes a cake to his father in jail, the door is slammed in his face, and the cake is crushed by a prejudiced white jailer. The boy is kind enough to spare his mother from hearing the tale.

As the months pass, the family hears that Father has been sent to work in the quarries. The boy constantly worries about the safety of his hero. Finally in autumn, after the crops are harvested, he tells his mother that he is going to search for his father. It will be the first of many futile journeys. Each time the boy searches for his father, he meets with disappointment and mistreatment; he learns about racial segregation and injustice. The curtained house of the white folk, the cruel white guards, and the crawling, groveling convicts etch painful marks on the boy’s psyche. Anger and indignation well up inside him, yet he knows he is not in a position to fight back.

The boy continues to dream of a better life for himself and his family. Whenever he travels, he looks for discarded magazines and newspapers so that he can practice his reading. Then one day he passes a schoolhouse, and it changes his life. When the boy walks close and peers inside, the teacher comes out to offer his help. He encourages the boy to come and live with him so that he can attend school. Mother approves of the offer, feeling it was heaven sent. As a result, the boy farms the land from planting time through harvest. Then in between he lives with the teacher and goes to school. He is truly happy for the first time in his life.

The book is really the story of the boy’s journey through the lonesome valley of pain and suffering into a life of maturity and meaning. Because of the education he is receiving, he can understand and accept the deaths of both Father and Sounder. He knows that “if a flower blooms once it goes on blooming somewhere forever.” The boy knows that the strong, tall man he admired from the porch and the coon hound with the remarkable bark are not dead; they will live in his heart forever. In addition, he feels certain that the pair are walking together somewhere for eternity.

The Father

Father is a black sharecropper living and farming on the fringes of a white man’s plantation. He is pictured as a tall, strong, handsome man, who is not afraid of hard work and who loves to hunt with his coonhound Sounder. Father, however, is pained by his family’s poverty and miserable over their hunger. In winter, when there are no crops and no game to hunt, he steals a pig to feed his family. As a result, he is chained by the Sheriff and put in jail; later he is sent to do hard labor in the quarries, and the family does not hear from him for years. The oldest son constantly goes out to search for his father or to find out news about him.

In the final pages of the book, Father returns home, a totally changed man. No longer is he strong, handsome, and proud; instead he is bent over and walks with a limp. He is also terribly scarred, both physically and mentally. His days living in jails and working in the quarries have sucked the life out of him; his inhumane treatment has stripped him of his dignity and spirit. He is only a shadow of his former self, much like Sounder and the old wilted plant mentioned by the teacher.

Father tries to rekindle his strength and spirit by taking Sounder out to hunt once again, but it is a futile effort. Before long, he quietly dies one night while out hunting with Sounder. The dog brings the boy into the woods to find the lifeless form. Mother then provides a decent burial with some money she has managed to save. Sounder soon follows his master to the grave. The boy misses his father and the coonhound terribly, but he knows that both of them will live forever in his heart and mind.


Early in the novel the boy says, “There ain’t no dog like Sounder.” The narrator comments, “What the boy saw in Sounder would have been totally missed by an outsider.” In other words, a person (including the reader) has to know the coon hound to really appreciate him.

Sounder is described as having a muscular neck and broad chest. In spite of his size, he is also very agile; but his most well-known trait is his thunderous voice, which often echoes through the foothills that surround the small family cabin. In fact, his very name comes from his remarkable bark, for Sounder can sound a warning for miles. His bark is extremely loud and very clear with an almost flute-like mellowness to it.

Sounder becomes the central symbol of the novel. He clearly stands for the human values of love, devotion, and courage; ironically he acts more humanely throughout the book than most of the humans. In truth, he becomes the “Sounder” for what is good in life, and he is pitted against life’s evils, such as injustice, discrimination, callousness, hatred, and pettiness. Throughout the novel, the reader can see the humanity of the beast being ironically contrasted with the animal-like qualities of the humans.

When the Sheriff arrests and mistreats his master, Sounder grows frantic and tries to attack the culprit in order to save Father. The deputy warns the boy to hold the dog back, but Sounder is too strong for him. He pushes the boy down, breaks away, and chases after the sheriff’s wagon. For his faithfulness, he is shot by the deputy. Although he is down, oozing blood from the head, Sounder will not stay down. He pulls himself up and goes deep into the woods to heal himself.

When Sounder returns, he is a changed animal. He is disfigured, bent, limping, and lifeless, a clear foreshadowing of the future state of his master. He spends his days in listless boredom. Not until Father returns does he show much interest in anything. Then when hunting season comes around, the two of them go out to hunt together, but they have simply lost too much of their spirits. As a result, Father soon dies and Sounder follows him to the grave.

Throughout the book, it is obvious that there is a deep bond between Father and Sounder. In fact, their lives follow a parallel route. Both are mighty figures, who are wounded physically and emotionally. Both go off for awhile, hopefully to heal themselves; instead both are robbed of their physical beauty and inward strength. Their loss is so great that neither can ever recover. They go to their graves within months of each other, and the boy pictures the two of them together for eternity; the picture in the boy’s mind is of his father walking upright in strength and of Sounder barking loudly and resonantly.

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