Friday, November 23, 2012

Review: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry--Mildred D. Taylor
1976 by Puffin
276 pages--Goodreads

Ever since it won the 1977 Newbery Medal, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry has engaged and affected millions of readers everywhere. Set in a small town in Mississippi at the height of the Depression, this powerful, moving novel deals with issues of prejudice, courage, and self-respect. It is the story of one family's struggle to maintain their integrity, pride, and independence in the face of racism and social injustice. It is also the story of Cassie Logan, an independent girl who discovers over the course of an important year why having land of their own is so crucial to her family. The racial tension and harrowing events experienced by young Cassie, her family, and her neighbors cause Cassie to grow up and discover the reality of her environment.

I first read Roll of Thunder in 7th grade and I despised it.  I hated it with the fiery passion of a thousand suns.  Okay, maybe that's an overstatement, but I thought it was dead boring.  I liked reading fantasy and that was about it.  I knew little about the Depression or segregation.  I didn't like historical fiction much and the story of a black family in the South didn't interest me at all.  I just didn't have the context to appreciate it.  I may not be giving my 7th grade teacher enough credit.  He may well have contextualized the novel, but I don't remember anything other than just reading the book.  Reading it now knowing much more about the Jim Crow era and what it meant to be black in the South during the depression, knowing about not just Martin Luther King Jr but Emmett Till and lynch mobs, having more context I appreciated the story much more.  It's still a slow moving novel, but it is very good.

I got a lot of To Kill a Mockingbird vibes while reading this, but Roll of Thunder is a more immediate story.  As much as I like Scout and Atticus, they are not part of the black community.  All they risk is scorn; the Logans risk losing everything.  Their danger is ever-present and real.  Mockingbird has a wider focus and as such, loses some intensity while Roll of Thunder is tightly focused.

The characterization is great.  The lines of good and bad are not drawn down racial lines.  It's not super in-depth since it is a children's book, but there is some complexity in the characters.  Mr. Jamison is an honest, decent white lawyer.  Jeremy likes the Logans despite the racism in his family.  Many of the black families want to support the Logan's boycott, but they also need to survive.  TJ has been wronged by the system but is not absolved of personal responsibility in his bad choices.  Uncle Hammer's anger is justified, but his violent reactions are not.

I really appreciated the relationship between Mama and Cassie.  How do you raise a black child and teach her to have self respect, but also teach her that white folk won't see her as worth anything and she'll have to act a certain way to survive?  How do you decide how much to tell your child about the brutality going on around her when you know she sees some of it but may not understand everything?  How do you balance the need to protect your child with the need to let her grow up?

The book did a wonderful job of portraying racism through the eyes of a child.  How does a nine year old even process that she is despised because of the color of her skin?  Does she really understand what it means that the night men are riding?  Does she understand that her family could not just lose the land, but her father could be beaten or tarred or lynched?

The novel uses n word occasionally, and I can see this bothering some readers.  I don't particularly like the word's use, but I think it is justified in this story.  Taylor says in the introduction to the novel that history is not politically correct, that racism it is not polite; it is full of pain.  She does not sugar coat things or shy away from the truth.  She is tasteful about her use of the word, but you will want to take that into consideration in recommending the book to young readers.

The book loses points because while it is excellent now, it didn't appeal to me at all as a kid and I think many of my classmates agreed with me.  I feel like some Newbery winners are amazingly written from the perspective of adults, but kids don't like or appreciate them.  And if kids don't like the book, what's the point?

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