Sour Land

Sour Land

5.0 2
by William H. Armstrong

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Life is hard for the three Stone children. The death of their mother has left them bereft and grieving. Their father tries hard to make things better, but he is busy trying to keep their farm going. Even the land around them seems to have betrayed them: It is so barren that it is known as sour land.

Then Moses Waters comes to teach at the black school at


Life is hard for the three Stone children. The death of their mother has left them bereft and grieving. Their father tries hard to make things better, but he is busy trying to keep their farm going. Even the land around them seems to have betrayed them: It is so barren that it is known as sour land.

Then Moses Waters comes to teach at the black school at Cedar Corners. Moses can hear things no one else can, like the sound of the grass and the earth humming together. More than anyone else, he seems to have a special understanding of the Stone family. Only Moses can help them out of their grief.

But a sour land grows sour people. There are some folks in town who don't approve of the friendship between the white Stone family and the new black teacher. And it looks like they will go to dangerous lengths to stop it.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.12(w) x 7.62(h) x 0.25(d)
Age Range:
13 - 14 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

"Why is one kind of graveyard called a cemetery and the other a burying ground?" David Stone asked his father as they paused at a point where a high wire fence ran at right angles down the hill from Anson Stone's pasture fence.

"They bury Negroes in one and us in the other," Jonathan Stone interrupted before his father could answer..

"But if they're both graveyards, why is one so messy and the other so neat?" the third child asked. The third child was Ruth, the boys' five-year-old sister, always the last to get a chance to speak. David was eight and Jonathan a year and a half younger.

"People just have different names for things," was their father's answer, leaving Ruth's question unanswered. "But they'll both be neat if he keeps going with that scythe." He pointed to the figure mowing part way down the hill.

David started to speak again but his father said, "Quiet, I love to see a man who can handle a scythe."

From the top of the rise where the wagon road curved toward Anson Stone's fields that lay beyond, Anson Stone stood quietly looking down the hill. Ruth had forgotten her unanswered question and had broken open a milkweed pod left over from the year before; she was blowing its feathery seeds to the wind. Jonathan was breaking a long stick into a dozen short ones. David was standing in thoughtful concern, exactly like his father except that he had one hand in his jackknife pocket and was gently caressing the two-bladed symbol that set him apart from "the children."

The higher-than-usual fence that separated the twograveyards on the same gentle hillside was the kind one might see around a private game reservation or park — or in front of a man's house to indicate to the world his bitterness toward life by his evident dislike for dogs and other people's children. The fence ran down the hill to the church and the sexton's house, ending at the corner of the sexton's vegetable garden. At the far end of the garden a gate came into the uncared-for graveyard, the burying ground. In order to enter it, one had to come by a rocky ford in the brook that lay beyond the sexton's house and the church.

Anson Stone had climbed his pasture fence from time to time to read the names and inscriptions on the small stones and markers, some store-bought, some cast from cement in rough homemade molds, some wooden crosses of sawed lumber and some hewn out of locust wood by band. Under many, woodchucks had burrowed down into the earth, causing them to fall and lie unnoticed in the weeds and brambles.

On almost every store-bought stone there was a lamb lying down or being carried in the bosom of a shepherd, a dove with wings spread and an olive branch in its beak, or an angel on a cloud. On one stone there were two angels, one with short-cropped hair and knee-length robes, and one with long flowing robes and hair trailing In the wind.

But homemade or store-bought, the markers all carried their message. The homemade ones had simple carving: Fear Not, IN Loving Memory, Rest In Peace. On the store-bought ones there were more elaborate messages, but all were taken from the songs the people had sung at their work, or from verses they had cried "Amen" to in the Meetin' House: When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder, He Shall Gather His Lambs To His Bosom, I Know That My Redeemer Liveth, He Giveth HIs Beloved Sleep, The Sleep Of The Laborer Is Sweet, I Seek Out My Sheep Where They Have Been scattered In The Cloudy And Dark Day.

At first, Anson Stone had read them because he was curious. Later, he had re-read them many times for a feeling he couldn't exactly explain that made him feel good long after, as he walked to and from his fields. But for now he was curious about the stranger with the scythe that responded as though set to music, a black man Anson had never seen before.

A large pile of brush at the lower fringe of the lot indicated that the black man had already been over the lot and cut out the woody saplings that were too big for his scythe. So now the scythe in the demanding black hands moved in a gentle rhythmic arc and leveled everything thing before it.

The scythe, swinging from right to left, scarcely moved the man who held it. There was no reach at the beginning or sudden jerk or quick unbalanced foot movement as the scythe swung in its measured arc. A whispered swish was the only sound. There was no rattle of steel against stone or wood as the scythe slipped behind the grass and weeds that grew dose to the grave markers. It seemed as though the point of the blade reached out like a finger to pull away whatever grew there.

A catbird fussed from the top of a mock-orange bush where the stranger, had left a circle uncut so as not to frighten her from her nesting place. A song sparrow fluttered between a wooden cross and a sword-lily. Around the lily too an unmowed circle had been left.

David had grown tired standing like his father and, calling their collie after him, wandered out of sight ground the bend of the wagon road to find the cows, for this was the purpose of the walk. Jonathan had been carrying on a contest to see how many of his short sticks he could throw over the pasture fence a few yards below the wagon road.

Meet the Author

William H. Armstrong grew up in Lexington, Virginia. He graduated from Hampden-Sydney College and did graduate work at the University of Virginia. He taught ancient history and study techniques at the Kent School for fifty-two years. Author of more than a dozen books for adults and children, he won the John Newbery Medal for Sounder in 1970 and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Hampden-Sydney College in 1986.

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Sour Land 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Set in the South in the early 1900's, Sour Land is a poignant story of the friendship between a black schoolteacher and a white family. Moses Waters, who comes to teach at Cedar Corners' black school, meets Anson Stone, a widowed farmer who struggles to grow his crops in the barren earth, also called sour land. Unlike other whites in the community, Anson looks beyond Moses' color and sees his kind, loving spirit. They eventually develop a deep friendship. Anson's motherless children slowly recover from their grief as Moses educates them about the beauty of nature and teaches them profound lessons in character. Although Moses' presence heals the Stones' sorrow, their white neighbors strongly disapprove of the friendship. Blinded by bigotry, they fail to see the goodness in Moses' heart and will stop at nothing until they think that they have completely destroyed him. The evils of racial prejudice are powerfully illustrated in this story. The title is diabolical, referring to both the barren soil of Cedar Corners and a town where the whites possess a 'sour' attitude towards blacks. Sour Land strongly depicts how racism poisons people's hearts and leaves no room for love and acceptance.
Guest More than 1 year ago
She almost hit him because she hit a gravestone right behind him! If you want to find out more of what happened to ¿her¿ read Sour Land by William H. Armstrong. If you enjoy reading historical fiction books be sure to read this fantastic story. If you ever wonder how things were in the past this is a great book to get you started. Read it and it will take your imagination flying everywhere Life is hard with three children and one parent until someone that understands comes along. That¿s what happened to the Stone children when they came across Moses Waters in a graveyard. Soon after, he starts working at Anson¿s farm. They don¿t know there lives are about to change especially in the children¿s school. But just when they thought it could not get any better, they were right. Things didn¿t get better. First someone died and then some things that they never thought would happen to the person that understood did. He went to jail. One of the things I liked about the story was that I was able to make connections. One of my connected books was a book called Sounder that is also written by William H. Armstrong and my connection was that the person in the story that goes by Moses Waters was in the book called Sounder and is also in this great book. The way I was able to make this connection was when Moses talked about his dog that died, named Sounder. Throughout this book I sometimes found myself in other places in the book. For example most of the time I found myself in the fields. This book also taught me a little bit about the past, but mostly in Martin Luther King¿s time. I really recommend this book to anybody that is interested in historical fiction. Some of the characters in this book are kind, and respectful, some of the greatest characters that had good personalities were Moses Waters, Anson Stone and the three Stone children. Some of them unfortunately were mean, disrespectful, and racists. But it is still a really great book and if you read it I hope you enjoy it.