You’ve gotta walk that lonesome valley,
You’ve gotta walk it by yourself,
Ain’t nobody else gonna walk it for you…
Our last Newbery medal review for the year 2012 features Sounder, the powerful award-winning piece of William H. Armstrong. Winner of the 1970 Newbery Medal, Sounder tells the story of a family struggling to survive during the hard times in 19th-century South.
While written in third-person narrative, the story was “told” through the eyes of a boy, the eldest of four children in his family. Looking back, I enjoyed how the storytelling progressed. Initially, the boy was merely a spectator in the story, as the narrator described what happened to his family on a daily bases. Later on, the boy took an ‘active role’ as the story became his story.
Every Dog-Lover’s Tale
The story was named after the great coon dog named Sounder. I was reminded of classic dog stories like Lassie, White Fang, Shiloh, Homeward Bound, and Rin Tin Tin. I love dogs and it’s always nice to read stories featuring these lovable canines. Sounder is one special dog. Here is a description of Sounder from the book:
What the boy saw in Sounder would have been totally missed by an outsider. The dog was not much to look at – a mixture of Georgia redbone hound and bulldog. His ears, nose, and color were that of a redbone. The great square jaws and head, his muscular neck and broad chest showed his bulldog side…
But there was no price that could be put on Sounder’s voice. It came out of the great chest cavity and broad jaws as though it had bounced off the walls of a cave. It mellowed into half-echo before it touched the air. The mists of the flat-lands strained out whatever coarseness was left over from his bulldog heritage, and only flutelike redbone mellowness came to the listener. But it was louder and clearer than any purebred redbone… Each bark bounced from slope to slope in the foothills like a rubber ball. But it was not an ordinary bark. It filled up the night and made music as though the branches of all the trees were being pulled across silver strings. – pp. 4-5
Night after night, the boy’s father would take Sounder to go hunting in the woods. If they got lucky, there would be food on the table. Otherwise, they would have to wait until the next day to try again. The story sounds so typical yet it is a reflection of life during such bleak times.
Oppression in the South
More often than not, a story that is powerful is also heartbreaking. Such is William H. Armstrong’s work of art. A poor African-American family enjoying a family dinner of ham during a cold winter night was a thing of beauty. In truth, it was anything but. In those times, it only meant one thing: thievery. All it took were the deputy officer and his men to ruin such a nice family gathering.
I left out the “nightmare” part when I said earlier that Sounder was every dog-lover’s tale. To illustrate, here is a scene that pierces the heart:
Sounder was running, falling, floundering, rising. The hind part of his body stayed up and moved from side to side, trying to lift the front part from the earth. He twisted, fell, and heaved his great shoulders. His hind paws dug into the earth. He pushed himself up. He staggered forward, sideways, then fell again. One front leg did not touch the ground. A trail of blood, smeared and blotted, followed him. - pp. 27-28
If that isn’t heartbreaking enough, the boy had his own experience to share:
Inside, the man lined everybody up and felt their clothes and pockets. He jerked the cardboard box from the boy and tore off the top… The man with the red face squeezed the cake in his hands and broke it into four pieces. “This could have a steel file or a hacksaw blade in it,” he said. Then he swore and threw the pieces back in the box. The boy had been very hungry. Now he was not hungry. He was afraid. - p. 59
Light in Darkness
The story of Sounder is quite a heavy read for younger children, but it is beautiful and truly inspiring. Many times readers will find themselves feeling sorry for the boy and his family. I read the book alone in the kitchen on a cold and dreary winter night. I was really saddened by the turn of events in the story. Somehow, I felt the grief and pain that the boy felt.
However, the constant Biblical references showed signs of hope for the boy. Just like in his mother’s song, he “walked the lonesome valley” by himself. He embarked on a journey to find what was supposed to be waiting for him in the end, just like in the stories of King David and Joseph the Dreamer.
As I left work this morning, I was lucky to capture the splendor of the sun. When I uploaded the photo, my caption read, “There is light in darkness.”
When I read the book, the image above popped in my head. Light and darkness cannot exist without each other. Even in the roughest of times, one will find a glimmer of hope. I will leave it to you, readers, to find out how the boy found light in darkness. In reading Sounder, may you learn from the boy who was always hopeful and whose faith never faltered.