Years ago, in 2009, I read Mildred Taylor’s Newbery Award-winning novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, mostly because I’d never read it in elementary or middle school and wanted to see what everyone else had read. It wasn’t for some time that I found out that this book is part of a five-book series about the Logan family, African-Americans living in southern Mississippi during the Depression. Let the Circle Be Unbroken (winner of the Coretta Scott King Author Award) is actually the third in the series, and the second I’ve read.
This book, like the other, is narrated by Cassie Logan, a spitfire and the only girl in her family. The Logans are somewhat privileged in their community, because they own land, so they are sheltered from the terrible trap of sharecropping. But land-owning among a community of white farmers has its own dangers, and so does the simple fact of having black skin. Cassie watches and learns as hard times beset her family and friends. The book picks up where Roll of Thunder left off: TJ Avery, accused of a murder he didn’t commit, is tried by an all-white jury and convicted; a union of black and white sharecroppers tries to escape the cheating landlords’ imposed conditions, and fails; Cassie’s older brother Stacey runs away from home to make money for the family working on a sugarcane plantation and is jailed for his trouble; the Logans’ friend Miss Lee Annie decides she wants to vote and is evicted from her home for trying. And Cassie’s cousin, Suzella, the daughter of a black man and a white woman, struggles with the consequences — good and bad — of “passing” as white. Families are destroyed and shattered by racism and greed. But not the Logans. Not yet.
In my review of Roll of Thunder, I said that I thought it was a serious book for children — that despite the gravity of the material, the kids acted like kids and would be engaging to read about for the age group it is usually given to. With Let the Circle Be Unbroken, I’m not so sure. I think Taylor’s aim is the same as it was in the other book: it was written in 1981 (and the first two in 1975 and 1976) and hence the height of the black pride movement. I believe Taylor means to give African-American children a sense of their own history, something that’s not often taught in schools. When do we learn that black and white people sometimes did try to work together despite suspicion and danger, but were discouraged by class issues? When do we learn about the factors that prevented African-Americans from voting in the 1930s? When do we say, you exist, you matter? This book, this series, is crucial for that. I just wonder: would a nine-, ten-, or eleven-year-old connect with this much sorrow? It helps to see it through Cassie’s eyes — and to know she doesn’t understand everything she sees — but I wonder whether adults might grasp it better than children.
I do recommend this series. It’s extremely well-written and well-characterized, and the history is reflected back from a perspective we don’t always see in children’s novels. I will probably pursue the rest of them over time. Have any of you read all five of them, or any of the rest of them?