Let the Circle Be Unbroken

let-the-circle-be-unbrokenYears 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?

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18 Responses to Let the Circle Be Unbroken

  1. I have not read any of these, but I should. I don’t remember talking to anyone who had read them in elementary school either, though as they were published I heard their names being lauded and put on reading lists. Children may be able to deal with the sadness better than we think, but these sound like the kind of books today’s kids would be unlikely to pick up on their own. It would be interesting to hear from some teachers.

    • Jenny says:

      I associate these with The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1958) and Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960) for some reason, even though they were written 15 years later — if you’d read those in school, you were likely to have read this one as well. I wonder if they’re still being suggested to kids. Probably not, with all the great middle-grade fiction that’s being written today.

      • I loved The Witch of Blackbird Pond as a child, but I don’t believe I read Island of the Blue Dolphins till I was an adult. Or did I read it, but only appreciated it on a later reread? It was all so long ago, I’m not able to keep track… but I know there are still many good books that I missed.

  2. Lisa says:

    I had no idea that these are a series. I don’t think I’ve come across the others, except for Roll of Thunder.

    • Jenny says:

      See, I didn’t know either! I only found out by looking up the author. She’s written a couple of stand-alone children’s novels as well, also dealing with historical race issues.

  3. Jeanne says:

    I read Roll of Thunder with my oldest child, from a list of books for a fifth grade reading project. Until now I’d never heard of the others in the series, though. Might have to check one out.

    • Jenny says:

      I think a bright fifth grader could do fine with Roll of Thunder, but I wonder about this one. I’d love to get your take, Jeanne. I liked this book very much, as you can tell, but — one thing, for instance, is the pervasive worry of the adults for their children. Do children understand that, or anyway do they when they read about it? I know I got it, but it’s a nuance I’m not sure kids would absorb.

      • Jeanne says:

        When I looked them up, I found six books, and this one listed as the fifth. I think I’m going to try reading them in order, rereading Roll of Thunder along the way.

      • Jenny says:

        That’s interesting. They must be putting them in internal chronological order, rather than order written, and including The Friendship, which is only tangentially about the Logans. I I will be really interested to hear your thoughts.

  4. Elle says:

    Children’s books of the 1980s/90s consistently surprise me, when I look back at them, with just how adult they are. I read them as a kid (not Roll of Thunder, though; somehow I missed that one), and loved them, but looking back on them now, I wonder if a kid of the 2000s would be able to care. Maybe I’m massively underestimating contemporary children. In any case, Mildred D. Taylor is definitely one for me to look up again.

    • Jenny says:

      Ha ha! There are serious books out there for contemporary kids, too (like Laurie Halse Anderson’s books, for instance, and John Green’s, and it does seem like every single book has to start with the mom dying) but I know what you mean.

  5. I was handling one of the other books in the series at the library this week (The Land) and thought that i should read these. I never did as a child. I don’t even think I was aware of them back then, even though they were certainly out at that time. I tended not to read anything remotely serious as a kid. These sound like good books to read in class, perhaps, with a caring teacher to walk a child through the sadness. I think I’ll try one of theses next year, as one of my reading goals is to read more middle-grade and YA fiction.

    • Jenny says:

      I saw them on the shelf all the time (at least Roll of Thunder and this one) but never picked one up. Same with Witch of Blackbird Pond, which I have never read to this day! I agree that these might be better in class — or even in high school, paired with To Kill a Mockingbird, to get both perspectives. I think it would be pretty interesting.

  6. Kristen M. says:

    I read Roll of Thunder and the starter picture book/novella (Song of the Trees) just last month. They were certainly hard to read and I really thought that they would be best read as a class with support from a teacher. Not that I think individual kids couldn’t/shouldn’t handle them but that they could promote some fantastic discussions and digressions.

    • Jenny says:

      I didn’t know Song of the Trees was a picture book! Mildred Taylor was certainly multi-talented. I agree that these would go over really well in a class — especially to give some of the historical context.

  7. Read Roll of Thunder back in ’07, as part of my project to read all of the Newbery winners. Could have sworn I’d read at least one of the sequels, but apparently I didn’t…. (Dicey’s Song, by Cynthis Voigt, was my favourite Newbery — I knew it was the second in a series, so I read its prequel first and then went on to read three of the sequels.)

  8. Pingback: The Logan Family Saga: The Land, The Well, Song of the Trees, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Let the Circle be Unbroken, The Road to Memphis | Necromancy Never Pays

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