Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry won the Newbery Award in 1977, the fact that it’s still a very topical book about racism makes me want to scream in frustration. The Newbery Honor books that year were Abel’s Island by William Steig, which I didn’t think I’d ever read until I read the description and guys, I LOVED THIS ONE I’m totally re-reading it at some point; and A String in the Harp by Nancy Bond, which I think I read and liked but don’t recall much of. I read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry when I was in elementary school, but it didn’t make a large impression on me. I think I liked it ok, but it didn’t stick with me much at all. When I picked the book up to re-read it the only thing I remembered from it was the major spoiler that happens at the end of the novel. I’m kind of ashamed of my younger self, because this book is one of those books that just hits you hard if you let it.
The book is set in Mississippi in the year 1933. Cassie Logan is a young black girl who lives on a farm with her family, and unlike most of her black neighbors, her family owns the land they farm. The book starts the day after the night men burned three black men alive. I don’t think they’re specifically members of the KKK because white robes are never mentioned and when they finally appear on screen doing their night men terrorism, Cassie can see their faces enough to identify who they are. However it’s pretty clear that they performed the same function of keeping the black population ‘in their place’ using terror as a form of control. The fear that everyone has as the year progresses from that incident is palpable. The book is heartbreaking in many ways as Cassie, who has been partially sheltered by the adults in her life, learns some very ugly lessons about where society places her on the social strata because of her skin color. It’s also a fierce novel, as you see the bravery and persistence of a people who have been beaten down their whole lives refuse to give up.
The characters in the book are so vivid and their motivations are made clear with just a few lines of dialogue. The character of TJ is so reminiscent of Tom Sawyer, with his smooth talking persuasion skills, that I wonder if Taylor intended to make the comparison, especially because the conclusion of TJ’s plot line is so vastly different to what Tom Sawyer’s would be in a similar situation. It’s very easy to draw a direct line from TJ to any number of the black children shot by cops in our recent history.
This is what makes me angry: Taylor wrote the book in the 70s and it’s about the 30s, over forty years have passed since the book was written and almost 100 since it’s setting and it feels like we haven’t come near as far as we should have in those years. Until this book feels like a foreign world I do think that every American citizen should at least read it once.
(Also, if you’re in the mood to scream/cry/laugh in anger and frustration or simply want to know why this book is STILL SO TOPICAL go read the one star reviews on Goodreads.)
(also, also, how gorgeous is that Puffin edition cover?)