Saturday, January 5, 2008

William H. Armstrong

by William H. Armstrong
Recommended Age: 10+

This is a still, gentle story about loss, waiting, and searching, set in the Southern U. S. around the turn of the 20th century. It mostly concerns a family circle--particularly the mother, father, and oldest boy--and their coon dog, Sounder. Touched by tragedy and racial injustice, it puts a high value on hope, on the love of nature, and on the love of words.

The story is extremely simple, and not much happens in it, but still waters run deep. The boy's father is arrested and sentenced to hard labor for stealing food for his hungry children. The boy searches for his father, year after year, hoping to learn of his fate, but learning more important things instead. And the dog, half-crippled, simply waits until its master comes home.

None of the human characters have names. I suppose that makes them universal figures, standing for something in each of us. The boy searches and waits a long time, and learns from many experiences, before he learns what the loyal hound has always known. He moves from grief, through anger and hatred, to acceptance. He becomes strong, he becomes learned, and finally when he finds what he has been seeking--but all too briefly--he learns that nothing remembered is ever lost.

This book won the 1970 John Newbery Medal. It has a sequel called Sour Land.

Sour Land
by William H. Armstrong
Recommended Age: 10+

This is a companion book to Sounder, and in my opinion, an even more moving book. Perhaps its power lies in its personal, intimate nature. Unlike Sounder, this book is full of characters with lifelike names. It does not come across as a universal parable—though it may be that—but as a portrait of a handful of very specific, individual people. People who are bound together by loss and by love, by hard work and the enjoyment of stories, by the unfolding of nature’s beautiful secrets, and by the grim reality of the ugliness that remains in the heart of man.

The book get its title from the soil in this corner of an unnamed, southern U. S. county, where the ground needs a lot of “sweetening” before anything will grow. Unfortunately, the title works just as well for some of the people who live on that land. For when a gentle, wise black man named Moses Waters befriends a white farmer named Anson Stone—who, with his three children, are just beginning to get over the loss of a wife and mother—some folks in the neighborhood do not take it kindly. The children learn from fresh troubles at school that love is worth making sacrifices; and they learn so much from Moses himself. Meanwhile, Anson finds life returning to his empty heart again.

I cannot get across to you how gentle, how peaceful, how filled with beauty this book is—but there are also dark shadows in it, and a growing threat that the only happy ending possible for this book is hidden in the hope of a better future.

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