Mar 15, 2012

#TheList, No. 843: Sounder

Here's a hint: if you're not a fan of uber sad stories and you see a children's book with a dog on the cover, don't pick it up.  Don't do it.  Nine times out of ten, that dog is going to die.  And it isn't going to go easily.  Oh no.  That dog is going to die in the most heart-wrenching way possible.  And sometimes that dog will fake you out and stay alive, but then die once you let your guard down.

Spoiler alert: That's what happens in William Armstrong's Sounder, an insanely depressing children's novel about an African American family in the 1950s.  So yes, there's racism, poverty, and a dead dog. 

A young boy's family is poor, and relies on their dog's hunting abilities (aside from the dog, the characters are unnamed).  Even then, they go hungry most of the time.  Consequently, the father steals meat from the town, is caught and arrested.  As the sheriff brings the father away, Sounder runs after them and gets shot. Right in the head.  Mind you, this all happens in the first 20 pages, so you think the sad part is over.  Oh no.

Sounder disappears into the woods to die, according to the mother.  Still the boy constantly searches for his beloved pet.  When the dog hobbles back of its own accord, weeks later, he's missing a leg and half of its head.  You will want to weep.  You might be on the T, surrounded by strangers who look at your oddly contorting face and try to stay strong.  Then the father comes back from working on the chain gang.  He's now disabled thanks to a blast of dynamite.  Oh my goodness the dog and the father parallel each other.  Just pour it on thick and pull on the heartstrings a little more, why don't you, Armstrong?

Challenge accepted he says! The boy starts going to school because he's always wanted to learn how to read.  With his new education and understanding of life and death, he's able to say goodbye to Sounder and his father, knowing that they will live on in his heart.  So then they both die for real, and the emotional roller coaster ends. 

If it's not clear yet, this isn't the happiest of books.  So if a kid comes up and says, hey give me a book that'll make me cry (and this request has been made to me many times), this will get the job done.  Aside from the tears, there's also a fairly good look at racism and economic standings of the mid-20th century.  I did think that the parallel between Sounder and the father was a bit heavy-handed, but sometimes children need to have things spelled out for them while they're learning to decipher literature.  The boy's connection and relationship with both Sounder and his father is the forefront of the story, but these race and financial elements underscore the action.  

In sum: if there's a dog on the cover, it's going to die, this book is horrifically depressing (though well-written),and it covers a good deal of history.  My apologies to the people on the T who saw my trying-not-to-cry face.

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