Monday, June 11, 2007


by William H. Armstrong. 1970 Newbury Award winner. It was made into a movie in 1972 and redone by Disney in 2003.

This is a classic story that I first read in Jr. High. I was in a mixed suburban school near Cleveland Ohio. The story is set in the American south in the 1930s and tells about a black sharecropper family's tragic struggle for survival in the face of intensely cruel racism and violence. I remember thinking that is was very far away and outside of the norms for our lives. I wonder now if the white teacher and the other students in my class, both black and white felt that way too.

Thinking about it now I realize that it wasn't that long ago. The boy in the story could be still living today. In the seventies, when it was written and when I read it he most certainly was. The students sitting in English class with me could have had relatives living in the south. The boy in the story is not far in age from my parents. My classmates' parents and grandparents might have lived that life. My own family was from New England so I felt no connection to the South, but that isn't very realistic. White racism dominates our country north, south, east and west. Being from New England doesn't distance my family from the acquisition and control over the wealth sharecroppers built, maintained and were denied.

The biting cruelty and evil of a society where a man could be taken from his family and forced to work hard labor with no pay for six years until he is disabled and sent to walk home in disgrace or die on the road for stealing a ham to feed his family is deeply disturbing to me today. When the sheriff turned around in the wagon and shot Sounder, the family's hunting dog, as he was taking the father and head of the household away in chains he surely knew what he was doing to that mother and her children. He was stripping them of their most important and legitimate means of earning a living. Let alone what he did to the boy's father, and to the dog. I can't even begin to speak about the pain of his mother's life.

When I read the reviews about this book online today they mostly put it in the past, as a historical novel about the old South. I don't see it as that far away anymore. Don't we have a growing prison population that is disproportionately African American? Haven't my own sons lost their biological families for mostly economic reasons? I have two adopted African American sons. Their biological grandparents and extended families may have lived that life. It's still with us today. Does anyone else feel this?

1 comment:

Libby said...

great comments. I haven't read this book since it came out, though I saw the movie (it premiered in the town I lived in at the time, as the author taught high school there). I'd love to read it again and see what I think now.