One of the reasons I hadn’t ever read this book before (besides the thousands of other books I want to read) is the title. Another reason was the cover. It just didn’t make me want to pick it up (and it turns out, the copy I have is also not very representative). As for the title, to some it may sound poetic or deep. To me it sounds like it’s trying too hard. And after reading it, I can confirm that it’s too high falutin’. It doesn’t really fit the book. There is also a newer cover with art by Kadir Nelson (pictured here in the review), and that is much better. In fact, it’s beautiful. Get that one if you can. But once you get past that…
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry was written by Mildred Taylor as part of a six-book series. Even though it is number four in the series, it is usually read as a stand-alone and frequently as assigned reading for children in elementary school. Published in 1977, It takes place in Mississippi in the 1930s, and while it is during the Depression, there are other issues besides financial struggles that take center stage and have earned it a Newbery Medal. The story is told from the perspective of Cassie but tells the story of her family’s farm, including the life and times of her parents, uncle, and three brothers. Cassie learns why her father fights so hard to protect their farm and insists on their independence while racism and social injustice ravage around them, threatening their happiness, stability, and even their very lives.
As an African American in the Jim Crow South, Cassie doesn’t understand the nuances and how dangerous her behavior and her speaking out is, which is where much of the tension in the novel comes from. Her parents, meanwhile, are raising her with dignity while also aiming to protect her (and some readers find their behavior inconsistent, while for me it read as flawed and realistic). The story is a coming-of-age for both Cassie’s older brother, Stacey, and Cassie. It is a great history read, dealing with black history and the Jim Crow era, yes, but also with the 1930s, the South, and small town America. It’s also a story about family and about relationships. About growing up. And has plenty of beauty along with the heart-breaking injustice. It makes for a good introduction for children to the concept of the between-slavery-and-freedom, to the gray in the space between enslaving people and giving them their freedom on paper. Though I wonder if kids will find it less terrifying for exactly the reason Cassie kept walking into danger: they don’t see the unspoken yet. They may need to be taught this book while reading it.
The number one complaint by other reviewers is that it vilifies white people and puts black people on a pedestal, since the characters tend to be shiny-good or evil-bad and they fall pretty much along race lines. It wasn’t something that jumped out at me, though I could see how this could be a complaint. I mean, no one in the book seems perfect to me, and if Cassie sees her family in a golden light that would be normal for a child. As far as all those white villains, well some black people just didn’t have many positive encounters with white people. And Taylor gives us two nuanced white people, anyways. As far as actual story goes, there may be some issues with the narrator’s perspective, with sudden lurches in the story, and with plotting and ending. But overall, we get to step into Cassie’s shoes and watch her grow up in the haze of obliqueness which is childhood, constantly worried about how she’ll fare because we do care about her.
In a nutshell: Roll of Thunder is an award-winning children’s classic about land and unequal treatment, about family and the Jim Crow South. The development is deeply internal and Cassie is a strong and betimes naïve narrator, causing the reader to experience a lot of suspense.
Other books to read about the subject matter:
The Help, Kathryn Stockett (I have read it, but before I was reviewing here.)
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
There is also a 1978 movie with Morgan Freeman in it, which you can catch on YouTube. It doesn’t look like it’s that great, but perhaps one of you could let me know what you think.