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Sandy: I turned to Sounder recently because I was sorting out the kerfuffle raised when a white author wrote the story of a Mexican woman fleeing a drug cartel in her hometown, desperately trying to migrate to America: The kerfuffle-causing book is American Dirt (which I've hard is fabulous, despite the kerfuffle).  I remembered that a white man wrote Sounder, the story of an unnamed black boy in the deep south in the 1920's. The boy is left to care for his mother, younger sisters and brother (and a coon hound named Sounder) after his sharecropper father is cruelly arrested right in front of him, and sent to serve 10 years of hard prison labor; all for stealing a ham.  This book is so good and stands up so well 50 years later that I sat unmoving until I finished it a few hours after I started. I wrote all over its pages, at first to mark how the author, William H. Armstrong, managed the dialect of its rural, southern and black main characters but eventually I asterisked and underlined much more and in pure awe.

What a story, what a writer. If you can manage to get your family to all read it, it would make for a memorable discussion and I’d even say your book group should pick it (in either scenario I highly recommend the link below for background).  Though it’s dubbed a children's classic - every grown up I've recommended Sounder to in the last 8 weeks has come away changed and moved. Regarding a white author writing in black characters' voices and telling their tale, Armstrong set a great example when he wrote this timeless message in his Author's Note upon Sounder's publication in 1969:

"Fifty years ago I learned to read at a round table in the center of a large, sweet-smelling, steam-softened kitchen. My teacher was a gray-haired black man who taught the one-room Negro school several miles away from where we lived in the Green Hill district of the county. He worked for my father after school and in the summer. There were no radios or television sets, so when our lessons were finished he told us stories. His stories came from Aesop, the Old Testament, Homer, and history.

There was a lasting, magnificent intoxication about the man that has remained after half a century. There was seldom a preacher at the white-washed, clapboard Baptist church in the Green Hill district, so he came often to our white man's church and sat alone in the balcony. Sometimes the minister would call on this eloquent, humble man to lead the congregation in prayer. He would move quietly to the foot of the balcony steps, pray and then return to where he sat alone, for no other black people ever came to join him.

He had come to our community from farther south, already old when he came. He talked little, or not at all, about his past. But one night at the great center table after he had told the story of Argus, the faithful dog of Odysseus, he told the story of Sounder, a coon dog.  It is the black man's story, not mine. It was not from Aesop, the Old Testament, or Homer. It was history - his history.

That world of long ago has almost totally changed. The church balcony is gone. The table is gone from the kitchen. But the story remains."

Now that's classy. No matter your age, origin or color – when you’re great you’re great.

* I won't mention its title because I really didn't care for it, for a few reasons, and I don’t like to speak ill of someone’s hard work so publicly.

A timeless classic and winner of The John Newbery Medal, Sounder is a novel of courage and love that bind a black family together despite the extreme prejudice and inhumanity the family faces in the Deep South."The writing is simple, timeless and extraordinarily moving. An outstanding book." "--Commonweal"
Publication Date: 
December 24, 2002