In William H. Armstrong's Sounder, what was the boy's life like before and after the white men came into the cabin?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Prior to his father's arrest by the white men who came to the cabin, life was difficult but pleasant for the unnamed boy who is the protagonist of William H. Armstrong's Sounder. The family in the story are African American sharecroppers on a plantation in the South. The process of sharecropping arose immediately after the slaves were freed during the middle of the Civil War. Sharecropping was a means for white landowners to re-establish a labor force on their plantations after the slaves had been freed in order to try and recover the economy. However, sharecropping merely turned out to be just a new form of oppression and slavery. Through the system of sharecropping, African Americans rented a plot of land from white plantation owners. The sharecroppers shared a portion of their crops with the plantation owners and were able to keep what was left, which was never very much. What's more, sharecroppers needed to rent tools and planting supplies from the plantation owners, leaving the sharecroppers deeply in dept to the landowners ("Sharecropping"). As we can see from the start of the novel, the African American family was in just this predicament. The family tries to earn more money through hunting and selling animal hides, plus selling shelled walnuts. There is hardly enough for the family to eat, leading the father to steal pork from the landowner in order to feed is family.

Things are difficult after the white men come to the cabin to arrest the boy's father; however, the difficult times also prove to be beneficial. The mother now only has selling shelled walnuts as her means of earning money. The boy also decides to journey out in search of his father who is working on a chain gang that's moved around all over the state. The boy's journey is definitely very difficult, even leading to a moment when his fingers are crushed by a prison guard, leaving his fingers crippled. However, one benefit is that, throughout his journey, he finds scraps of newspapers and other reading material and teaches himself to read a little. Later, he finds a book written by Montaigne thrown in the trash near two schools and fishes it out. A teacher sees the boy collect the book and invites the boy to his home. The teacher reads from Montaigne, soaks his injured hands, and lets him spend the night on a cot. Later, we learn that the teacher has also invited the boy to attend the school and stay with the teacher, doing the teacher's chores in repayment. Hence, as a result of his father being arrested and the boy undertaking his journey, the boy finds salvation through education, which is what he had always wanted.

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