by William H. Armstrong
Winner of the 1970 Newbery. Set probably some time in the ‘30s, this book centers on an unnamed black boy who must grow up fast after his poor, sharecropper father is arrested for stealing a ham for his hungry family. The titular dog, a hound/bulldog mix who loves to hunt with the father, is hit with a shotgun during the arrest, and never hunts again. It’s a bleak tale; the boy’s silent rage, in which he visualizes brutal violence befalling the unjust, cruel white men who oppress him and his father, is mitigated only by a persistent desire to educate himself, which blooms when he meets a kindly widowed teacher.
This gift of literacy, which literally opens up new worlds to the boy (there is a distinct albeit unsaid implication that he will eventually move beyond the narrow world of shacks in which he grew up), in some small way helps the boy from being crushed by the destruction of the spirits and bodies of both father and dog. In the end, after the miserable dog finally dies under the house, the boy is glad: “Only the unwise think that what has changed is dead,” he consoles himself. Is this really a book for children? I suppose so, despite the bleakness and injustice that saturates the story. I read this book as a child, and though much of his poetic prose and historical import must have gone over my head, I remember being very moved by the cruelties the boy and dog endured. However, this is definitely also a story that adults not only can by edified by, they ought to.