A tall man and his son stand on the rickety porch of their cabin this cold October; the boy rubs his hand on the top of his coon dog’s head. His father got Sounder as a pup many years ago; the dog is about the same age as the boy. Three small children peek out of the door and want to pet Sounder, but it is too cold outside. The boy is proud to be older. Their cabin is one of many Negro sharecroppers’ cabins scattered on the white man’s plantation. Sometimes the boy and his parents attend church, and the boy tries to attend school but it is too far and too cold for him to walk in the bitter weather between harvest and planting times. Since he is not in school, the boy gets to hunt with Sounder.
The dog is aptly named, for his baying is louder and more distinct than any other dog in the county. His bark “fills up the night and makes music as though the branches of all the trees are being pulled across silver strings.” Sounder is a rather ugly mix between a Georgia redbone hound and a bulldog, but he is a magnificent hunter. During the winter, when no other money is coming in for this poor family, the money from animal hides is welcome.
Tonight father promises to take the boy hunting if it is not windy. Inside, mother cooks a sparse dinner, for the hunting has not been good so far this year. Later, father leaves without Sounder or his son while the boy helps his mother shell walnuts while she tells him wonderful stories from the Bible. The boy finally sleeps, wondering where his father has gone. Everything outside looks the same in the morning except for the frost on the ground. It is cold and the boy warms himself a bit at the stove where he discovers pork sausages cooking in a skillet and a ham simmering in another pot. Pork sausage is usually only for Christmas, and the boy has only even smelled ham twice before in his life.
Mother is humming, something she does when she is worried. The boy and the other...
(The entire section is 501 words.)
The land is now stark and frozen, and almost no one passes by during the winter. Any speck on the horizon is a curiosity to people sitting on their cabin porches. On the third day after the meat appeared, the family still has plenty to eat. The boy leaves the cabin to go to the woodpile, but at the doorway he stands motionless, even when his father tells him to shut the door. Three white men rattle across the porch and push their way inside the cabin.
The men are rough and accuse the boy’s father of stealing meat from the smokehouse as one of the men dumps the remaining ham onto the floor. The sheriff and his two deputies are clearly angry and disgusted at having to be here. One of the deputies says “stick out your hands, boy.” The boy starts to raise his hands; however, the deputy puts the handcuffs on father’s wrists. As the men prepare to leave, Sounder barks and begins growling and scratching at the cabin door. One of the men says father tore his overalls on the door hook of the smokehouse; threads from the hook match his overalls, and soon father will be in jail.
One man shoves the boy outside and commands him to hold his dog if he does not want them to shoot it. The boy drags Sounder into a corner, and the men prepare to ride off with their prisoner. The commotion and confusion are unsettling to the dog, but the boy manages to restrain Sounder. The men chain father to the wagon as Mother watches from the doorway. Sounder makes an awful, strangled noise and then drags the boy as he follows the wagon. One of the deputies shoots at the dog and Sounder falls. Finally mother speaks, telling her son to come inside. Sounder is still lying in the road and the boy feels sick.
As the boy brings in an armload of wood, he hears a sharp yelp from the road. He drops the wood and races to Sounder. He sees the dog struggling to run, but one shoulder and half the dog’s face have been shot. The boy is crying and calls out,...
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For breakfast the family eats no meat, just biscuits and milk gravy. The boy is ready to go check on Sounder, but his mother is preparing to leave. She wraps the walnut kernels in brown paper and puts the remaining pork sausage and ham in a meal sack before dressing in her warmest clothes. She is going to the store to sell the walnuts; she does not say what she is going to do with the meal sack slung over her shoulder. Mother warns the boy not to wander too far looking for Sounder, as he is not likely to be found today. If a stranger comes to the cabin, he should say nothing. The boy nods but does not speak.
Mother leaves, singing a mournful song. Her son wants to run after her but only watches until she is just a speck in the distance and eventually fades into the earth. It is a dreary day and the boy worries that people are going to be unkind to his mother; he imagines the many cruel things which might happen to her in town. He had hoped the sun would shine so the ground would be softer when he has to bury Sounder. The boy wants to cry, but he does not.
He carries wood into the cabin, builds up the fire, and warns his siblings not to open the stove door. He takes Sounder’s ear from under his pillow and is thankful his mother washes his sheets and pillowcase every week, just as she does for the people who live in the big houses. She also washes their curtains twice a year, but the boy has never looked through a window with curtains on it. The fire in the stove has burned down a bit, so he leaves to do his sad task: drag Sounder out from under the porch and bury him. He is not eager to do this awful thing, but he finally goes outside before it gets any colder. Sounder did not die in his favorite spot, as the indentation just behind the front steps of the porch where his master placed some coffee sacks for some insulation from the cold is empty.
Mother said Sounder would die in the farthest corner under the porch, so that is where the boy crawls. It is a dirty, dusty mess, but Sounder is nowhere under the cabin. The boy loses Sounder’s ear as he crawls on his belly looking for the dog. It is unlikely that a wild creature carried the carcass away, so the boy thinks that perhaps Sounder is not as hurt as the boy thought and somehow managed to follow his master. Now the boy cries, and he walks the road as far as he dares. There is no sign of Sounder.
The boy feeds his siblings before carrying in wood for the night. Then he watches out the window for his mother. Finally he sees a speck on the road and it grows larger. He had hoped she might get to bring her father home if she returned the stolen meat, but she is alone. She tells her children that she returned the meat and comforts the boy, saying Sounder is probably healing his wounds in the natural way all animals know. The boy is not consoled.
Mother bought some fat meat, potatoes, and vanilla flavoring with her walnut money. She also brought a cardboard box. The boy sees the hurt in his mother’s eyes, but she says nothing about what happened in town. Tonight mother hums as she picks walnut kernels. She does not tell one of her wonderful Bible stories, even though he asks her. The next morning, the boy searches for Sounder in the woods. He comes home bedraggled and discouraged—and without the dog. Mother reminds him loss is part of living, and their family was born to lose.
Weeks go by and Sounder does not return. For Christmas, Mother bakes two cakes, a small one and a large one which she places in the cardboard box from the store. The next morning, mother asks the boy to take the cake to his father. Women are not allowed in the prison, so the boy must make the troublesome trip. She watches him walk away; when he is far enough away not to see her tears, she hollers at him to “act perkish” so he will not grieve his father. The boy walks but is afraid, especially as he gets close to town. Church bells are ringing and the boy thinks about the worn-out toys people in the big houses gave his mother and wishes they would have given her an old book. He is certain he could learn to read if he had a book.
The boy is early and waits until the clock strikes twelve. The hateful guard frisks him and destroys the cake to ensure there is no weapon hidden inside it. Now it is a box of crumbs. The boy feels the same “hopeless hatred” he felt when the deputies took his father away and imagines the cruel death he would like the guard to experience. Finally the guard unlocks a gate and shoves the boy into a long hallway. His father is behind the fourth door down and is unchained. The boy has imagined asking his father how Sounder came to him as a pup, but now he only feels a mixture of pity and hate as he pushes the box of crumbs into his father’s cell. The boy only talks about Sounder while his father only talks about coming home soon. He tells the boy not to come here again. The boy is the last to leave the jail and refuses to let the cruel guard see him cry.
On his way home from seeing his father, the boy decides not to tell his mother about the cake and regrets forgetting to ask his father where Sounder first came to him. He does not know where his father will be sent to work or when he will come home, and the boy worries about all of it. The boy tells his mother a few details about his visit to the jail before he asks if Sounder came home today. He did not.
The boy calls for the dog before he eats his dinner, and he also tells his mother that father does not want him to come visit again. Father will send word with the visiting preacher when he is coming home. Mother begins to pick walnuts and hum, but soon she is again singing her mournful song. That night the boy dreams...
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Sounder still waits for his master and mother hums nearly all the time. The boy helps her string more clothesline, and in the spring he goes to work in the fields. He is younger than all the other workers, and he is often afraid and lonely. The boy also does yard work at the big houses, and one of the men asks how old he is, noting that the boy is a hard worker for someone so young. The boy does not remember his age; he just knows he has lived “a long, long time.”
Days, months, and seasons pass, but every time the restless boy wants to look for his father, mother tells him to wait, as it will not be much longer. The boy agrees that it will be a long journey, and he argues with his mother about going. He reminds her...
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When the boy arrives home from each long trip, Sounder hobbles down the road to greet him. Sounder wags his tail and paws the boy with his one good front leg but never makes any sound but a whine. When the boy tells his mother the bits of news he heard about where father might be, mother remains silent. A dynamite blast in a quarry killed and wounded some prisoners, but mother has the people she works for read the newspaper reports to her, and none of the victims is her husband.
Months of searching turn into years, and mother just adds more clothesline so she can do more laundry. She wishes the boy would quit looking, but every time he hears some hopeful scrap of information, she sends him some food and watches him go....
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Mother is full of questions when she sees her son, and he tells her all about the night he spent at the teacher’s cabin. The teacher wants the boy to come back and go to school; he can live with the teacher in exchange for doing the man’s chores. Mother is silent for some time and then says it is a sign and gives the boy her blessing. When he arrives at the kind man’s cabin, all he has with him is his book.
The boy comes home to work during the summers so he can pay his family’s cabin rent with labor, but during the winters he rarely comes home. Each times he returns, Sounder greets the boy; the dog wags his tail but never barks. Now both mother and son sing while they work, and the boy reads to his siblings...
(The entire section is 508 words.)