1977: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

VERDICT: TREASURE

Laurinda’s Rating: 5/5

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is a beautiful and brutal portrait of black life in Mississippi during the Great Depression. Cassie Logan, the narrator, is an 8-year-old girl from a moderately prosperous African-American family. The narrative highlights her daily life, as well as her awakening to the institutional racism prevalent under Jim Crow.

Cassie’s parents own 400 acres of land and, while they still struggle financially, have more than most of the rest of the local families, who sharecrop on the estates of white landowners. Cassie’s mother, Mary, teaches school; her father, David, works on the railroad and is frequently absent. Big Ma, her grandmother, raises cotton and wrangles Cassie and her brothers.

Cassie is an entertaining narrator. She is naive and idealistic, a trickster yet concerned about others around her, and deeply devoted to the ideal of fairness. At times, I was silently screaming at her to be quiet, but only because I suspected the unpleasant outcome of her outspokenness and her failure to grasp the social situation. I loved her cleverness at rectifying situations involving her white peers, such as when she pretended to be friends with the girl who wronged her in order to collect personal information, forcing the girl to treat Cassie respectfully.

It is heartbreaking to watch Cassie learn about the societal position of blacks in her historical milieu. She deals with poor condition hand-me-down textbooks marked “nigra”, regularly gets a mud bath courtesy of the bus for the white school, and waits in fear for the return of her father when he is tardy returning from town.

The author, Mildred Taylor, does an excellent job portraying the various survival strategies employed by the black community when the deck was stacked against them so heavily. Big Ma and many of the neighbours pretend to respect the whites; in one incident, Big Ma forces Cassie to apologize to a little white girl she bumped into and backs the girl’s father when he forces Cassie into the street. Uncle Hammer regularly endangers himself and the rest of the family by taking the opposite tact: he rushes out to confront anyone who hurts the family. Thankfully, others generally stop him. Papa and Mama try to strike a balance. They organize a boycott of the Wallace store after the Wallaces burn a black family, finding collateral that enables sharecroppers to shop elsewhere. Even when this action threatens their land, they continue and find a way to make it work. Everyone in the book is forced to strike a balance between their conscience and the realities of Mississippi society.

The ending of the book is tragic: T.J., a friend of Cassie’s brother Stacey, falls in with two larcenous white boys. When their actions cause the death of a shop owner, T.J. is set up. While he escapes a lynch mob, the author strongly implies that T.J. will still die. Only Stacey’s quick thinking in setting the cotton field alight prevents the conflict from engulfing his entire family.

This book is note-perfect. Recent events re-affirm the importance of novels like this. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry highlights grossly unequal power relations, relations that have softened but not entirely decayed. Everyone should read this book. The sheer humanity of this book will make you laugh, bang your head against the wall, and tear up at the tragedy of the situation. It would be excellent as part of an integrated lesson plan combining current events, history, and literature.

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