Review of Sounder, by William Armstrong: (kidslit)
Sounder is a brief, bare story about a young boy and his family living as tenant farmers--sharecroppers, really--in the South. The time period is a bit ambiguous, but I would guess it to take place in the mid or early 20th century.
It's actually a novella, and, as I said, the story is kept as bare as possible--no character has a name, the setting is unknown, and not much happens. The characters' emotions are not deeply explored--rather, we're left to interpret them based on the characters' actions. When the "woman," the mother/wife of the family, hums, we know she's worried or that something has gone wrong. When "the boy" goes out day after day to search for his missing dog, and then goes out day after day to search for his father's labor gang, we must imagine the turmoil and the agony of emotions that drive him, and draw the connections ourselves. None of them are ever expressed.
The author, Armstrong, also very subtly points out the injustices that make the family's life difficult. There are few black/white collisions, but gently, without harsh language, Armstrong describes the racism that contributes to the family's poverty. He shows their struggles to survive without emphasizing them in any way; everything is accepted as a part of life, and it all fades into the background. The father, Jean Valjean-like, is sentenced to years of hard labor for stealing food for his family, but we don't see the theft, the trial, or his punishment. He simply disappears.
The dog, Sounder, receives most of the emotion and the attention of the protagonist (the boy) and narrator. When the father is arrested, it's Sounder who barks and screams and growls his anger, not anyone in the family. We see Sounder injured and bloodied and blinded and losing his most precious asset, his voice. Armstrong frequently reminds the reader of Sounder's loss of voice, and details his woes. Through Sounder we come to understand a bit better the depths of inhumanity that the family is faced with.
Personally, I didn't really connect with this novella. I didn't find the writing that remarkable, though it was good (the book won the Newberry Medal). Armstrong makes everything seem so unremarkable and does very little to develop the characters; I could not get into the story because of this. But it's a quick read, and a classic, and is certainly not boring. It's possible that kids would appreciate its simplicity and matter-of-fact tone more than I did.