1970: Sounder (Dead Dogs and Dads)


Laurinda’s Rating: 2/5

The 1970 Newbery Medal Winner, Sounder, is nominally the story of the titular character, Sounder the coonhound. The dog is the only named character in the book. The father of a share cropping family is dragged away for theft; Sounder is shot in the same incident. Sounder eventually returns to the family, but the main narrator, the oldest child of the family, spends years searching for his father. Eventually, it’s a reunion of gimps. Sounder lost the use of a leg, an ear, and an eye in the shooting and the father lost use of one side of his body in a dynamite accident. Shortly thereafter, the pair goes out hunting for what will be the last time. When Sounder returns without his father, the boy finds his body under a tree. Before he returns to school, the boy digs a grave for Sounder, which Sounder occupies a few weeks later.

The secondary plot focuses on the boy’s desire to learn to read. Because his labor is needed at home, he is rarely able to attend school, instead picking up rudimentary literacy with the aid of discarded newspapers. While searching for his father, a guard injures the boy’s hand, leading to a fortuitous meeting with a school teacher, who offers him education and board in a cabin in exchange for doing maintenance on the school. Both parents are very proud. However, this subplot rarely connects with the main plot, leaving the reader asking why either one matters.

The author, William Armstrong, frames the book as his retelling of a story a former teacher once related to him. This is one of those stories that probably worked much better as part of the oral tradition. It’s heavy on the description and light on plot. That, combined with the lack of names, made it difficult to connect with the characters. Armstrong does evoke the experience of a poor, presumably African-American, person living in the South, but, while reminding the reader how challenging that experience would have been, fails to raise strong depths of feeling. Instead, Sounder‘s “factual”/pseudo-non-fiction style narration just made me go “Well, that would have sucked” before moving along with nary a backward glance.

This is a short read. That’s the best part of it. Ok, well, the pictures are really the best, but the length helps. I wouldn’t particularly recommend this for anyone, though. Despite it’s length, I found the style tedious and the narration boring. It’s an oddly passive book, as the main character’s actions don’t change the outcome of the plot at all. Definitely skip this one.



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