In Louisiana in 1933, the Morgan family, Nathan Lee, Rebecca and children David Lee, Earl and Josie Mae, suffers the myriad deprivations of the Depression, barely surviving by sharecropping for demanding store owner Mr. Perkins. Early one evening, Nathan takes David and their beloved dog Sounder to hunt raccoon for dinner. Nathan's shot misses its target, however, and although he is angry and depressed that once again there will be no meat on the family table, Rebecca responds to the news with customary composure. Later, Rebecca reminds Nathan they have been through other tough times, but he bitterly wonders why they toil ceaselessly to make Perkins richer. In the morning, Rebecca finds sausage and ham in the kitchen, and cooks it without a word. After the thrilled children eat their fill, she mildly asks Nathan where he was the previous night, and he responds, “I did what I had to do.” David attends school, where he and the other few black children in the class must sit in the back row. Later, the children bring Mrs. Rita Boatwright her laundry, which Rebecca, who takes in laundry to supplement the family's income, has washed. The kindly white woman lends David her copy of The Three Musketeers and offers to discuss it with him. The children then rush to the sugar cane fields, where the men are playing baseball, in time to see Nathan pitch a winning game. On the walk home they celebrate with family friends Ike and Harriet, but upon reaching their home, are distressed to see Sheriff Charlie Young and his deputy waiting there. Young brusquely arrests Nathan for stealing the ham from a neighbor’s smokehouse, and leads him off to jail in handcuffs. When Sounder, barking loudly, follows the truck, the deputy shoots him. Sounder limps off into the woods, and Rebecca holds tight to Earl and Josie Mae as David follows the wounded dog, but cannot locate him. Soon after, Rebecca goes to town to visit Nathan, leaving David in charge. As the children wait in tense silence, Rebecca walks miles in the heat to the jail, but despite her pleas, Young announces that black women are forbidden to visit their husbands in jail. While in town, she stops by Perkins’ store to trade walnuts for ingredients to bake Nathan a cake. Perkins complains to Rebecca that Nathan has made him look bad, as he has been good to the family, and demands that she do the cropping on her own if Nathan is not home by spring. At the trial, Nathan is sentenced to one year of hard labor at a parish prison camp. Over the next days, while David searches for Sounder, Rebecca bakes the cake and has David bring it to Nathan. From his cramped cell, Nathan struggles to reach the high window for a glimpse of Rebecca, but cannot. He collects himself and shares the cake with David, then asks the boy not to return. In Nathan’s absence, the family toils day and night to support themselves. At night, David reads The Three Musketeers to them, and on the weekends they attend church. After church one day, they are visited by the reverend, who reminds a skeptical Rebecca to take her troubles to the Lord. One night, Sounder returns. David ministers to him, and although the dog heals, he will not bark. After the sheriff refuses to inform Rebecca to which labor camp Nathan has been sent, David asks Mrs. Boatwright to find out for him. Young refuses to tell her the information, so after he leaves the office, she screws up her courage to spy in Nathan’s file. Returning, Young catches her and declares that if she reveals Nathan’s whereabouts to Rebecca, he will turn the entire parish against her. Outside, Mrs. Boatwright tells David that she did not see the name of the labor camp, but knowing that she is lying, he turns away wordlessly. Soon after, however, Mrs. Boatwright arrives at the house and announces the location of the labor camp to Rebecca, who cries with joy. The older woman teaches the family to read a map and pinpoints the location of the camp, and the next day, Rebecca sends David off with Sounder to find his father. Over many days, the boy travels through rain and sunshine, woods and fields, finally reaching the labor camp. There, however, no one will talk to him for fear of reprisal, and the foreman hits his hand with a pipe and chases him away. Dejected, David walks to a nearby schoolhouse, and inside is stunned to see that all the students are black. The young black teacher, Camille Johnson, invites him in and tends to his hand, and upon noting his fascination with the classroom, offers to put him up for the night. Her lovely home is filled with books, and Camille inspires David with tales of notable blacks in history and the writings of intellectuals such as W. E. B. Dubois. The next morning, in class, one boy tells a story of rescuing his sister from drowning, and although the other children doubt his veracity, David defends the boy, knowing that people can achieve the impossible when they are forced to do so. He sets off again for home, laden with books from Camille and hoping fervently to return. Rebecca welcomes him joyously, and although she knows that his returning to Camille’s school will mean even more work for her, she agrees to consider it. Over the hot summer, they reap and process the sugar cane, and at the end of cropping season receive their meager payment. One afternoon as Rebecca is sewing, she hears Sounder suddenly bark and run off down the road, and realizes that at long last Nathan has returned. Shouting his name, she runs to meet him, and although he is limping, he drops his cane and rushes to her. The family embraces, weeping with joy. At dinner, Nathan explains that he was injured in a dynamite blast that rendered him unable to work and so was released early. David feels hugely relieved to have Nathan home, but when his father tries to work the next day, he collapses in pain, then bravely carries on. Later, a letter from Camille arrives for David, instructing him to arrive within the week. Nathan is pleased, but David announces that he will not leave his father’s side. When Nathan shakes him in anger, declaring that he needs schooling like he needs “good air to breathe,” David runs off. At Rebecca’s urging, Nathan tracks David to the nearby pond and gently tells the boy that when he was wounded, he made up his mind to beat death, and now he wants David to beat the life that is in store for him. He promises to love David no matter where he is. Days later, David, dressed in a new suit, bids goodbye to his mother, sister and brother and sets out for his school, accompanied by his proud father.