If Cormac McCarthy wrote children's fiction, it would probably turn out a lot like William H. Armstrong's Sounder. Armstrong wastes no time on sentimentality or metaphor, and in this is his eloquence. He doesn't even bother to name any of the characters except the dog, Sounder, and in this is his brilliance.
It's kind of an odd name for the book on the face of it—the book isn't really about the dog, or his relationship with the boy who is the main character. But by the end of the slim volume you realize the title is perfect, because it's not the dog but what he represents that is central.
Armstrong's eloquence is in his refusal to alter his narrative with artifice. In the author's note he reveals that the story he tells is the true story of the black man who taught him to read. It's the story of black sharecroppers, presumably during the Great Depression, and the deep injustice they receive from white society.
The boy's father steals a ham and some pork sausage one night, and as a result is taken to jail. During the arrest, the sheriff shoots the family hunting dog, who disappears. The man is kept in jail and on hard work crews for years and years for taking some food to feed his wife and four children.
Eventually Sounder returns, a shadow of his former self. The boy never stops searching for his father, despite the cruelty to which the white prison guards subject him. He finds an older man who teaches him to read, and takes the responsibility for providing for his family in his father's absence.
When the father finally returns, the dog (who'd lost his voice after being injured) barks again for the first time and runs to meet his master, who's been paralyzed in one side from a dynamite blast. Not too long after, the father dies in the woods, having taken the dog with him for one last hunt.
None of the characters have names. While this might seem odd for a novel based on actual events, it's also perfect: Armstrong isn't telling the story of one family, but of hundreds of families all experiencing the same injustice and the same oppression at the hands of people whose only superiority lies in their violently wielded authority.
Why give the dog a name? It's not because the dog is so important, but because of what he represents. His name is Sounder because his bark is so loud; when he's wounded, he loses his voice, and doesn't recover it until his injured hope is finally rewarded by the return of his beloved master.
I mentioned earlier that Armstrong's eloquence was in his rejection of metaphor, instead presenting the story in all its harsh realism. But that isn't quite right. The whole book is a metaphor for the oppressed, violently and cruelly rendered powerless and voiceless, but for all that not relinquishing the hope that is their birthright. This beautiful and sad book is one of the best.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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