I was teaching in a school in north London in the 1980s and it seemed that every student in Y8 was reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. It is easy to see why. There is a very engaging main character, Cassie, telling the story, a family suffering injustice and violence and a caring set of adults who explain the world and make it as safe as possible. But to be black in Mississippi in the Great Depression was to live in a violent and unsafe world.
We have reached the 1970s and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor was published in 1976. This is the eighth post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project focusing on children’s literature.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
Cassie lives with her family on a small piece of land in Mississippi in the Great Depression. It is unusual for such a family to own land, even a small parcel of land, because they are black. Her father works away, as does her uncle, because the income from the cotton crop does not make enough to sustain the family. Cassie has three brothers, her grandmother and her mother who together make up her loving family.
Cassie first notices racial segregation when she and her brothers have to walk through the mud to their school, while the white school children have a bus and go to their own school. What’s more, for sport, the bus driver frequently runs them off the road into the muddy ditches. The boys in her family plot to teach the bus driver a lesson. They succeed in breaking the school bus axle, and are not caught, although at about the same time there is trouble for some black families. This is a time of lynchings, burnings and violent racism.
Cassie’s family try to operate a boycott of the plantation shop, to use economic pressure to stop the exploitation of black families. But as they are the only black family with land they cannot muster enough support. Tensions rise. Cassie falls out with a rude young girl in a neighbouring white family, and is forced to apologise for standing up to the girl’s superior behaviour. Her father has his leg broken in a skirmish with some white men.
Finally, their friend TJ gets himself involved with some badass white kids. The three of them break into the local store, and the manager and his wife are badly injured. TJ is blamed and the white men come for him. He flees to Cassie’s family and then tries to get home. He is brought out of the house and his parents and siblings are violently manhandled. A friendly white lawyer tries to intervene, and only when a fire threatens the cotton crop does the community avoid violence and come together to save their common livelihood.
In the process of these events Cassie learns a thing or two about growing up and taking responsibility. There is a fair amount of sermonising and wise guidance by the adults. She must learn when to speak up, when to disobey, when to take action.
The readers in the 1980s would have been aware that the threat of violence was real, and that racial segregation and injustice was ubiquitous in the southern states. Cassie takes the role of the innocence who must have the behaviour and the injustices explained. Cassie asks the reader’s own questions. The threat of violence grows throughout the novel and culminates in a thunderstorm. We learn that despite great strength and size of each of the three black men, Papa David, Uncle Hammer and Mr Morrison, they choose the path of peaceful resistance.
Mildred D Taylor in the Author’s note that precedes the novel suggests that from her father
I learned a history not then written in books but one passed from generation to generation on the steps of moonlit porches and beside dying fires in one-room houses, a history of great-grandparents and slavery and of the days following slavery: of those who lived still not free, yet who would not let their spirits be enslaved … (7)
The first page suggests that the novel is based on the author’s own experiences.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cryby Mildred D Taylor, first published in the USA in 1976. I used the Puffin Books edition from 1980. 220 pp. My copy has the London school and English department stamp inside the cover. It’s on an extended loan.
The Decade Project in 2019
In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a book from 1980-89.
Here are the links to the books in this year’s Decades Project so far:
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin (1968)
The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954)
The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (1936)
Joan’s Best Chum by Angela Brazil (1926)
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)
Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)
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