If you’re an American born during or after the 1970s, chances are pretty good that you read Mildred Taylor’s Newbery Award-winning Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in elementary school. Somehow, I missed it (along with The Witch of Blackbird Pond and Island of the Blue Dolphins, among others), and so it’s been on my TBR list for some time, just so I could see what everyone was talking about.
Taylor describes an African-American family, living in the South during the Great Depression. The story is told in the first person, from the perspective of Cassie Logan, the only girl child in the family. The Logans are better off than most of their neighbors, because they own land: they don’t have the grinding debt and constant worry that sharecropping brings. But landowning as a black family brings its own share of danger, and their dealings with their white neighbors range from separate (the white children ride a bus to school, while the black children must walk the muddy Mississippi roads) to downright dangerous (when the dreaded “night men” descend to execute summary justice on a neighbor boy.)
I often think that books given to children in school are not really intended for children. Just because the main character of a novel is a child does not mean that a child will be able to understand or relate to the events. Huckleberry Finn is a prime example of this, and Romeo and Juliet is another — teachers make much of the fact that Juliet was thirteen, but she doesn’t exactly talk like Blair Waldorf. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, however, is a serious novel for children. Taylor doesn’t shy away from talking about even the most terrible aspects of racism (lynching, burning, public humiliation), but she also makes the children natural, funny, living examples of any time and place. They love their parents, get into trouble, hate school, and look forward to Christmas; they love special treats at the revival meetings; they play tricks and watch each other’s backs. It’s as easy to relate to them as to any child in fiction, despite the problems most of us have never had to face.
This book was written in the height of the black pride movement, and it’s clear that Taylor wanted to give a sense of their own history to African-American schoolchildren. My sister-in-law suggested that this book could be read side-by-side with To Kill a Mockingbird, and I think that would be really fruitful. In Roll of Thunder, a white lawyer helps and supports the Logans, but while his efforts are welcomed, he isn’t revered or even fully trusted. No Great White Father here, leading the black community to better things. These people are leading themselves, through great obstacles, to a better future.