By Patricia Tauzer,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Sharecropper boy finds hope, dignity amid racism, hardship.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Realistic and poetic description paints a vivid picture of the setting: the deep South during the Depression. The story explores the humiliating injustice of racism and the resulting poverty and hardship of that place and time. The boy learns that, though life can be harsh, it is also hopeful, and that stories, reading, and education help a person survive.
The sharecropping family is poor but honest, loving, kind, unselfish, and hardworking. The father is not proud that, in a desperate attempt to feed his family, he has stolen a pig. The mother is long-suffering and patient, and she even returns the parts of the uneaten pig when she realizes it was stolen. The boy does his work first, sees to his family, then seeks his father and Sounder. The best time of his life is when he listens to his mother's stories, finds a book, and gets the opportunity to learn to read. The outside world, the arresting men, and jailers especially, are part of a scary, dark, racist world. They are ugly and mean and, except for the drunkard and the teacher, never show a bit of sympathy or compassion.
Positive Role Models
Patience, inner strength, honesty, and education help the boy and his family remain hopeful and resilient, and that is why they survive as well as they do. The father, mother, and the boy work hard, show courage, and have a quiet dignity in the face of their very difficult life. When the father is taken away, the boy steps up. Not only does he work harder to help hold the family together, but he goes out year after year on journeys around the countryside trying to find his dad ... and Sounder. When the teacher offers to teach him to read, he begins to find a small crack through which he eventually escapes the dismal future of a sharecropper's life.
Violence & Scariness
The life of the sharecropper in a racist world seems cold, lonely, and always on the verge of violence: The weather is harsh, people are mean. The real violence comes when the boy's father is dragged out of the house, beaten, and hauled away to jail in the dark of night. That same night Sounder is shot and left for dead in the middle of the road. The mangled body is described graphically, as is the death of a bull. The guards smash a gift the boy delivers to his dad in jail, men are beaten on the chain gang, one guard smashes the boy's hand with a piece of thrown iron, a dynamite explosion kills some of the inmates, the father is permanently injured. At one point the boy feels a "helpless hatred" and wants to chain the jailer behind a wagon and drag him down the frozen road. But despite the fact that the story contains death, violence, and sorrow, it does have an important and uplifting message.
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One of the arresting officers refers to the father as a "thievin' ["N" word]" and calls him "boy." Otherwise their language is mean and threatening. Reference is made to swearing in several instances though no swear words are written in the text. For example, we read that the red-faced jailer swears at the boy and scares him, causing the boy to feel a helpless hatred.
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
A drunkard is one of the only adults who greets the boy when he is in town.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that this Newbery Award winner is not a heartwarming dog story, as the title and cover may indicate. Rather, it is the story of a boy's struggle to find his father, his dog, and his own identity in a racist world that is harsh, lonely, and violent at times. Written in the late '60s, some of the characterizations seem stereotypical, but the language is simple and strong -- almost poetic -- and the story is good. Several editions of the book have been reprinted, and it was made into a well-received 1972 movie starring Cicely Tyson and an updated 2003 Disney movie starring Paul Winfield.
Where to Read
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What's the Story?
When the father of a poor African-American sharecropping family is hauled away and forced into hard labor for stealing a pig, and the family dog is shot, life only gets harder for the boy and his family. Besides trying to fill his father's shoes, the boy begins a long-lasting, desperate search for both the dad and Sounder. He also is desperate to read. His life is full of fear and loneliness, but the loving patience of his mother, the stories she tells, a book he finds in the trash, and finally the chance encounter with a teacher give him hope and the ability to face his world with courage and dignity.
Is It Any Good?
SOUNDER is a remarkable, moving story. It captures the ugliness of racism and poverty as well as the desperation and necessary strength of downtrodden people, in this case an African-American sharecropping family in the rural South. By presenting the story from the emotional viewpoint of the boy, the author makes the reader feel his loneliness and fear, as well as his amazing determination and courage. Terrible things happen, as they often do in an unjust, prejudiced world, but a hopeful optimism presides. Not only is the story moving and tender, but the language that tells it is also realistically detailed, with multiple layers of symbolism that are uncomplicated but powerful.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about what sharecropping is, why the family in Sounder was so poor and hungry. What could they do to get out of their desperate situation? What did they do? How did they remain so hopeful in the face of such hopelessness?
The boy loved stories, wanted to learn to read, and yearned for education, but he had no books and had to walk eight miles to school and back. How did he learn stories? What did they bring to his life? What kinds of stories influenced him most? Do you think he changed when he found the book in the trash -- and a teacher? How will reading and education will help him escape the poverty of his life?
Sounder is the dog's name, and it is the only name used in the book. How did the dog get that name, and what did it say about him? Why do you think the author chose not to name the father, mother, boy, teacher, or any other character? What does not having a name say about a person? The author did not really name the place or time of the story either. Why? How does that affect the reader's experience?
Why did the boy feel so lonely? What about the other characters in the family? What things did they each do to help them during the lonely times?
- Author: William H. Armstrong
- Illustrator: James Barkley
- Genre: Coming of Age
- Topics: Cats, Dogs, and Mice, Great Boy Role Models
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: Harper & Row
- Publication date: October 8, 1969
- Number of pages: 128
- Award: Newbery Medal and Honors
- Last updated: June 16, 2015
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