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Through an omniscient third-person narrator, Sounder tells the story of a remarkable black family and their dog, named Sounder. In the preface to the book, the author states that it is really the childhood history of his own teacher, who is the young boy in the novel.
This opening chapter is largely introductory, presenting the main characters, the basic conflict, and the setting. The poor black family, living in the Southern United States, inhabits a run-down cabin on the far reaches of a white man's field; they have no neighbors and no means of entertainment. The father is a hard working sharecropper, farming the land; but there is never enough food for the family or money for the necessities of life. It is a hard, bleak existence, but it is obvious that the family loves one another and has real human values. Although the parents cannot read, they tell their children stories from the Bible. They also have instilled in them a desire to better themselves.
Sounder, a coon dog, is a key part of the family and a main character in the novel; he is a symbol of humanity and represents the values of faithfulness, love, and devotion. It is ironic that a dog is a much kinder and better being than most of the white folks that will be presented in the novel. He has been given the name of Sounder because of his full-throated, roaring voice that resounds through the woods when he is hunting with his master; in truth, he becomes the "sounder" of real human value in the novel.
This opening chapter clearly sets the mood of loneliness and isolation that pervades the entire novel. Because it is black, this family is forced to live in poverty--on the physical outskirts of civilization and the emotional outskirts of life; the prejudiced white community wants nothing to do with them and often treats them shabbily. The sense of loneliness is intensified by several things in this first chapter. First it is wintertime, and everything is dead and frozen; the land is barren and the wildlife is scarce. Father finds it hard to put adequate food on the table. Secondly, Mother is always humming a haunting melody, the notes of "the lonesome valley." Additionally, the boy talks about his dreary existence. He longs for his mother to stop her chores and tell him a Bible story to drive the loneliness away. Finally, the fact that the members of this family are given no names emphasizes the fact that they are isolated from life and undervalued by society.