Book Review: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
For years Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry has been on my reading list. Chronicling a year in the life of an African-American family in the South during the Great Depression, this novel won the 1977 Newbery Medal.
If you're a fan of To Kill a Mockingbird, then this story gives the African-American perspective on the Jim Crow South through the lens of Cassie Logan, a confident young heroine who begins to understand the racism surrounding her and to appreciate the value of the property her family has fought so hard to retain.
For most of the book Cassie doesn't understand why white people get preferential treatment. From the school bus that takes the white children to their school full of new textbooks to the white shopkeeper who begins to help Cassie only to ignore her when a white customer enters, this fourth grader observes her surroundings in a fairly naive manner. Her naiveté stems from the centered upbringing that her mother, father, grandmother, and uncle coordinate to raise a strong independent thinker.
As Cassie experiences more of the world around her and travels outside of her immediate community, she sees how white people deem her inferior. She's completely mystified by their racism. At one point her grandmother had to rescue Cassie from a potentially dangerous situation. Cassie is so sure of herself because she's been raised to believe not only in her own worth, but the worth of those around her.
Cassie has three brothers who are as perfectly portrayed as Cassie. My favorite brother is Little Man, who hates being dirty. He takes great pride in his appearance and wants to look good for school. When the bus carrying the white children intentionally splashes mud on Little Man, he's devastated. I just love this little guy, so watching his realization that the bus splashing him will be a daily sport for the white bus driver broke my heart.
And I cheered when Little Man refused to accept a used textbook that the white school board had deemed a throw away. His mother, a teacher at the school, pastes plain white paper inside the front cover to hide the table showing the book's progression from "new" and issued to a white child to "poor" and issued to a negro.
The Logan children all have a strong sense of self-worth. They stand up for themselves in these brave acts of civil disobedience. They will not tolerate the intolerable racism of the South. However, they see evidence of the racist violence around them. And that truly scares them.
And here's the piece that Taylor has woven into her story that I love. The Logan family has struggled to maintain their farm, which they purchased from a Northern white man who had come South during Reconstruction. He had bought the land from a Confederate family who couldn't pay their taxes, and he sold a part of the land to the Logans. While their neighbors must continue in the cycle of poverty that was sharecropping, Cassie's family has options. They don't have to purchase items from the Wallace store. Instead, they can travel to Vicksburg. Owning that land grants the Logan family a freedom that our Constitution promises, but fails to deliver to so many.
As far as historical fiction for young adults goes, this book delves into powerful themes surrounding racism, family, love, friendship, and loyalty. Some students may find the plot a bit slow. There's not much action until the end. There's no love triangle. There's no easy fix to the central problem and Taylor doesn't sugar coat any answers for her young readers. While the book's ending inspires hope, that hope take place in another 30 years with the Civil Rights Movement.
If I were teaching this book to humanities students, I would want them to write the biography or the memoirs of one of the children from this book from 1964. How did these characters participate in the Civil Rights Movement? What did they decide to do with their lives? I love how this book incorporates so many pieces of knowledge from the Civil War and Reconstruction, weaves them through the Great Depression, and still ends with the hope for Martin Luther King's dream.