Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976), Mildred D. Taylor, 276 pp.
In The Personal History of Rachel Dupree (2008), Weisgarber tells the story of a black rancher in 1910s South Dakota. In Taylor’s novel, we read about a black cotton farmer in 1930s Mississippi. Neither story is easy to read, with the main characters bucking prejudice and danger to hold on to the land they worked hard to buy.
That’s where the similarities end. Taylor’s story is relentless in its depiction of the horrors of racial prejudice and what it costs one family to survive them.
Cassie Logan — 12 years old, bold, clever, and short-tempered — is our witness to everything that happens during this pivotal year. She “grows up”, as her mother puts it, as she learns what a black girl cannot do and say in small-town Mississippi, where share-cropping, company stores, and less-than-equal education are the norm for her black neighbors. She’s lucky, because her father owns 400 acres of forest land and cotton fields.
The Logan house isn’t large, just 3 rooms and a kitchen, where Cassie lives with 3 brothers, both her parents, and a grandmother. But it’s comfortable, they have plenty to eat, and her childhood is full of pleasures. She knows the seasons by how they feel and smell — spring and summer mean bare feet in the earth, fall means the smell of food being canned for the winter, and winter itself is evenings doing homework in a warm room, with her family sitting nearby.
Yet this life is also full of terrors: a school bus races down a narrow muddy road past scurrying black kids to entertain its white passengers, a white man knocks Cassie off a sidewalk because she wouldn’t move for his daughter, black men are lynched, houses and fields torched, her father shot.
In both books, land is a critical asset for the main characters, for which they will sacrifice almost anything. Rachel DuPree’s husband puts his wife and children at risk to save his land. I suspect Cassie’s father would never go that far, but clearly his 400 acres make it possible for the Logans to live in a world where whites keep blacks in their “proper” place. The land makes it possible for him to ignore the offenses heaped on him daily, the insults to his children and wife. At one point, he advises Cassie:
… there’ll be a whole lot of things you ain’t gonna wanna do but you’ll have to do in this life just so you can survive…. If I’d’ve gone after Charlie Simms and given him a good thrashing like I felt like doing, the hurt to all of us would’ve been a whole lot more than the hurt you received, so I let it be. I don’t like letting it be, but I can live with that decision. ¶But there are other things, Cassie, that if I’d let be, they’d eat away at me and destroy me in the end. And it’s the same with you, baby. There are things you can’t back down on, things you gotta take a stand on.
Throughout the story, there’s a sense of threat overhanging this family. They have too much, and I had to wonder if fate would bring them down. By the end, I felt a little more secure about their future, but also certain that Cassie would grow up to be among the protesters marching against the fire hoses and dogs. She’d have understood that the time to remain silent and safe had ended, that this was something she would have to take a stand on. She’d have done it for her father and for the land.
Newbery Fun Fact: The first Newbery Winner to feature an African American main character won the Medal in 1951 (Amos Fortune, Free Man). Since then, only 5 other novels with African American MCs were winners, the most recent in 2000 (Bud, Not Buddy).