Roll Of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor

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Roll Of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: One of the great children's American classics, Mildred D Taylor's novel of Southern apartheid works both as a story and piece of history. I think it's one of those books every child should read and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it for any confident reader between 9 and 15. Make sure they don't miss it.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: May 1995
Publisher: Puffin Books
ISBN: 0140366253

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It is a long walk to school, through miles of dirty, unyielding red Mississippi dust in the warm months, and through miles of dirtier, even more unyielding red Mississippi mud in the rainy ones. It is the first day of the school year, and in honour of that Cassie Logan and her brothers Stacey, Christopher-John and Little Man are wearing their Sunday clothes. It is an impossible feat to stay clean, especially when the school bus taking the white children to school makes a daily sport of speeding up as it passes them, spewing clouds of red dust, or waves of red mud which cover them from head to foot unless they leap into the undergrowth on the side of the path. And even that makes them filthy. Cassie, her brothers and their friend, TJ, don't have a school bus, because they are black, and they go to the school for black children.

It is the nineteen-thirties, the years of the Great Depression, and everyone is poor, but the black families are poorest of all. When they arrive at school the children discover that they are to have new textbooks, readers. They can't quite believe their luck. Books are scarce, but new books even scarcer. However these books are not new, not second- hand, not fifth or sixth-hand even, but twelfth-hand. They are marked in the front with their history of ownership: "1. September 1922. Condition, Excellent. Race of Student, White." through to, "12. September 1933. Condition, Very Poor. Race of Student, Nigra". Unsurprisingly to you and I perhaps, but shockingly to the teachers and other pupils, Cassie and Little Man refuse their books in disgust. There is an important difference between Cassie's family and the others who attend the school - Cassie's family own their own piece of land, and they have just a tiny, tiny measure of independence when measured against the other families who are sharecroppers on white plantations, utterly reliant on the strictures placed upon them by their landlords. Even more unsettling is the rumour being spread by TJ of the burning of several black men who have dared to speak against Mr Wallace, a white storeowner who allows children to drink and gamble on his premises.

Cassie's parents, however, are wise, good people and they preserve happy times for their children, laughing times, full of meals, and love, and stories and songs to remember:

"In the fireplace itself, in a black pan set on a high wire rack, peanuts roasted over the hickory fire as the waning light of day swiftly deepened into a fine velvet night speckled with white forerunners of a coming snow, and the warm sound of husky voices and rising laughter mingled in tales of sorrow and happiness of days past but not forgotten... Through the evening Papa and Uncle Hammer and Big Ma and Mr Morrison and Mama lent us their memories, acting out their tales with stageworthy skills, imitating the characters in voice, manner and action so well that the listeners held their sides with laughter. It was a good warm time."

Unavoidably, the tension outside the family continues to grow, and eventually matters must come to a head. The mortgage on their land has been foreclosed by the bank because of the Logan's involvement in the boycott of the Wallace shop, Papa has been injured in a revenge attack, and TJ must be saved from a lynching. On a dark, stormy night Cassie learns the truth behind the words her father spoke to her so seriously just a few, short weeks ago, the truth that TJ forgot:

"Cassie, there'll be a whole lot of things you ain't gonna wanna do but you'll have to do in this life just so you can survive... But there are things you can't back down on, things you gotta take a stand on. But it's up to you to decide what them things are. You have to demand respect in this world, ain't nobody just gonna hand it to you. How you carry yourself, what you stand for - that's how you gain respect. But, little one, ain't nobody's respect worth more than your own."

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry was first published in the mid-seventies just after Mildred Taylor's father died. There is an author's note at the beginning of the book which pays tribute to the lasting influence his stories, his person, and his beliefs had over his daughter's life and her writing:

"He was a complex person, yet he taught me many simple things, things important for a child to know: how to ride a horse and how to skate; how to blow soap bubbles and how to tie a kite knot that met the challenge of the March winds; how to bath a huge faithful mongrel dog named Tiny. In time, he taught me the complex things too. He taught me of myself, of life. He taught me of hopes and dreams. And he taught me the love of words. Without his teachings, without his words, my words would not have been. His voice of joy and laughter, his enduring strength, his principles and constant wisdom remain, a part of all those who knew and loved him well. They remain also within the pages of this book, its guiding spirit and total power."

It is a lovely way to speak of someone you loved, isn't it? But it is also so very true. Without a history, especially a personal history, it is hard to make a worthwhile judgement on the present. Without awareness that so much of the quality of life comes from the routine, humdrum, familiar things that we do every day, it is easy to allow time to slip through our fingers, wasted. Without a firm set of guiding principles to live by that gives us self-respect and self-worth, it is hard to value and give respect to others as we should. As small people it is easy to believe that we lack power and that the things which trouble us are hopeless causes. But words give us the ability to take the knowledge that memories, experience, awareness and respect give to us, and enable us to use them to make a difference that is real. These are all things that children, as well as adults, need to know.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry speaks of all of the things given to Mildred Taylor by her father. A child's world is often a small one, centred around family, friends and school and Cassie's world is full of such things, of childhood friendships and mishaps and adventures, but it is also tinged, as is every child's, with the harsher realities of life. And so we see, through a child's eyes, the Depression, hunger, racism, segregation, and the evil that grinding, desperate poverty can bring to a situation already tense and unstable. In the way it tells of violence and despair with straightforward honesty, but without angry rancour, within the protective wrapping of the values of truth, justice and self-respect, and with lovely, sensuous writing that captures perfectly the sensibilities and passions of a child, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry reminds me of the Ingalls Wilder books about frontier life, and, more obviously, of the similar tale told by To Kill A Mocking Bird. It is a tale full of painful life lessons, and one that needs to be told, even, perhaps especially to children, but it is also a warm, beautiful acknowledgement that if we hold fast to what is right, there will always be a chance. At its end, when Cassie cries for a lost friend, and for the land, she cries tears that are full of the enormity of a child's first knowledge of grief but which are softened by the love of her family and the realisation that somehow there is always a way to do what is right.

There is.

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blahblah said:

beautiful... JUST BEAUTIFUL!!!

love it

lady bird hodan said:

i think this is an outstanding book and very true. these stuff still happens in every day life and i think it is important for someone to learn about the racial discrimination black people faced during their lifetime.

fallen said:

this book is absolutely wonderful and is a very good book to learn from regarding all the issues about black and whites!

untarnishedSOUL said:

Roll of Thunder did catch my attention when i forst read it. And it is a really good luck from the blacks' perspective. I think anyone who love this should go and read To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee because it encompasses the black and white rivalry that appeared in this book as well as society.They are both similair in the way that they have adopted a young female child as thier mouthpieces. However, i love this book any how.