Taylor doesn't need to shout at us about her message of racial injustice, because the events speak for themselves. Like Cassie's run-in with Lillian Jean Simms in Strawberry:
Behind him were his sons R.W. and Melvin. People from the store began to ring the Simmses. 'Ain't that the same little nigger was cuttin' up back there at Jim Lee's?" someone asked. (5.93)
'Yeah, she the one," answered Mr. Simms. 'You hear me talkin' to you, gal? You 'pologize to Miz Lillian Jean this minute.'" (5.94).
Pretty humiliating, right? You'd expect that there would be a general uproar in the Logan household after this, but no. Instead of heavy-handed editorializing, we get interaction between Big Ma and Cassie that gently reinforces the cruelty of this type of inequality:
"Big Ma gazed down at me, fear in her eyes, then back at the growing crowd. "She's jus' a child […] Go on, child … apologize." […] Her voice hardened. "Do like I say." (5.100)
Taylor quietly gives us troubling scenes of racially based brutality and discrimination, but she doesn't hammer home her point with extra commentary. The events and interactions speak for themselves.
And about that serious business: sure, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry has some light-hearted moments—but not many. Even at the Logan's festive Christmas dinner, the gift giving and jollity come with a heaping side of bleak: the tale of Mr. Morrison's family being slaughtered on a long-ago Christmas.
Let's see: Fictional characters? Check. Real-life setting? Check. Time period from the past? Check. We think it's safe to say that we're dealing with historical fiction here.
Cassie and her family are fictional characters (although inspired by the experiences of Mildred D. Taylor's own father and grandfather). They live in a real setting (rural Mississippi), and the action takes place in the 1930s (see "Setting" for more details on this). The social and cultural context the Logans deal with is very real, also: the racism and oppression that black people lived under in the South during this time.
The narrator is a kid, and a kid who learns a major lesson by the end of the novel. It deals with universal themes of childhood, like growing up; not understanding the grown ups; and trying to figure out your place in the world. And, like all good young adult books, it has a major coming-of-age plot.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is a sort of transitional coming-of-age story, meaning that we don't see Cassie totally grow up. Remember: she's only nine years old, and we only see one year of her young life. Cassie learns some pretty tough lessons for someone so young, like how to pick her battles and how to navigate the dangerous waters of black-white relationships. But, she's still got a long way to go before she even hits those teenage years.
Great. All set? Onwards and upwards, then.
The title is the first line of the spiritual "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry." So, it's pretty much shorthand for how the Logan family and Mr. Morrison are trying to take a stand against the injustice against blacks by whites that is rapidly building up to a crisis—like the Wallace store boycott, or Mr. Morrison's violent defense of Papa.
And just like thunder, these events are going to shake the Logans' world.
Did we mention that we're dealing with some pretty heavy stuff in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry? Because we are. In the end, T.J. has been taken away to jail for killing Mr. Barnett, and Papa has started a fire that saved T.J. (temporarily) but destroyed a lot of his cotton crop. T.J. will probably be hanged; the Simms brothers will get off scot-free. And then there's the very last line:
I cried for T.J. For T.J. and the land. (12.167)
The land, too, has been unfairly punished: keep in mind that by starting the fire, Papa has ruined a good portion of his own cotton crop. Remember all the references to red mud and Big Ma saying that the family's blood was in the land (4.237)? In this final paragraph, the connection that Taylor has drawn between the people and the land becomes clear. Crystal clear.
And Cassie grieves for both—and the unfairness and sheer waste of it all.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry takes place in rural Mississippi, where there are places with quaint names like "Strawberry." We never know the name of the town where Cassie and her family live. What we do know is that the predominant color of the land is red. There's red dust, red mud and red dirt, all of which liberally coat the Logan children each day on their way to school.
The story takes place in 1933, during the height of the Great Depression. This accounts, in part, for why so many of the characters are poor, and provides an account of how blacks fared during the Great Depression (since most of the more well-known novels set during this time feature white families: for example, The Grapes of Wrath).
But the characters in the novel aren't just poor because of the Depression. They're also poor because of racial inequalities in America, and particularly in the South. Keep in mind that we're way before the Civil Rights movement, and still firmly in the era of open racism and segregation.
A major problem is that sharecropping keeps the black characters down economically. These farmers had to pay rent for their land and also give up a percentage of the profits that they made on their crops. The system was rigged so that it was impossible for farmers like the Berrys and Turners to ever get ahead. Most had really no hope of ever escaping this level of poverty.
Remember: the Logans have it good by comparison. They at least own their own land and have some level of autonomy. But, because of their skin color, they're still at the mercy of unscrupulous people like Mr. Granger, who has Mama fired and who constantly schemes to take the Logans' land away from them.
Times are starting to change, though, in the 1930s. Black people are more upwardly mobile (think about Uncle Hammer and his good job in Chicago that allows him to afford a nice car), and educated (Mama and her teacher training), especially in the North. Great, right?
Not so much. The Southern whites reacted to this change by going after any African Americans that they saw as rising above their stations. Taylor uses the "night men" to help us feel the terror of these times—the world was changing, and not everyone was happy about it.
Have you ever heard the term "negro spiritual?" Well, these "spirituals," or religious-based songs, were originally sung by slaves in the fields, and then handed down through African-American churches. We couldn't find "Roll of Thunder, but here's one you might be familiar with.
Many of these spirituals brought comfort to slaves during their captivity, but some were also used to communicate defiance. The song used in the book is more rebellious, and points to the blacks' refusal to put up with white domination anymore. Even though they might be beaten down (literally), they refuse to "turn 'round" (or go back to being subservient).
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry uses relatively simple language to tell a very weighty story about racism, injustice and inequality in the Depression-era American South. Keep in mind that Cassie, our narrator, is only nine years old. So, while some of her language is a bit more complex than we might expect from someone her age, it should cause no major problems for students from about sixth grade on up.
Here are a couple of things to keep in mind as you read Cassie's story:
(1) Be on the lookout for $5.00 words like "imperious," (1.176), "clabber" (5.19), "nattily" (6.9) and "wan" (12.164), for example. So, you'll probably want to have a good go-to dictionary source nearby.
(2) Also, Mildred Taylor writes with lots of dialect, which re-creates Southern and African-American speech patterns. Expect to see dialogue like: 'I betcha Mama's gonna "clean" you, you keep it up' (1.3).
You might do a few double takes in the beginning, but stick with it. You'll develop an ear for it in no time (well, technically an eye, but it's all good) and things will smooth out.
Okay, we admit that sounds contradictory. But check it out:
Taylor uses a lot of plain dialogue in conversations between characters. Once you get used to the dialect, the speaking style is quite true-to-life and conversational. This breaks up the longer passages of exposition and commentary, not only making the text fairly easy to read, but also allowing the pacing to be fast and intense.
And now for the ornate: Some of the longer passages are more complex and even dense. For example, here's a description of Mama: "She was tawny-colored, thin and sinewy, with delicate features in a strong-jawed face, and though almost as tall as Big Ma, she seemed somewhat dwarfed beside her" (2.4). These longer and more complex sentences give the novel some welcome ornate—even literary—touches.
You may have noticed that there's lots of imagery involving the weather in this book. (Not surprising, since "thunder" is actually in the title.) Taylor sprinkles loads of meteorological events throughout the novel: rain, thunder, lightning—pretty much everything but a tornado. What gives? Let's look at a couple of examples.
The Logan children (and the other poor black children) have to walk to school—rain or shine. And a lot of the time, it's in the rain:
That night when I was snug in the deep feathery bed beside Big Ma, the tat-tat of the rain against the tin roof changed to a deafening roar that sounded as if thousands of giant rocks were being hurled against the earth. By morning the heavy rain had become a drizzle, but the earth was badly sodden from the night's downpour. High rivers of muddy water flowed in the deep gullies, and wide lakes shimmered. (3.14)
Having to walk through that is bad enough, but they have the added indignity being splashed by the white-children-only school bus "zooming from behind and splashing [the children] with the murky waters of the road" (3.4).
The rain, then, is a physical force that reinforces the separation that exists between the black and white children because of their unequal educational facilities.
Think about the sound of thunder for a moment. It's loud. It's powerful. It can roll with gentle warning from off in the distance, or it can erupt suddenly, with an ear-splitting crack. Either way, it tells you that something big is on its way.
When we first meet Mr. Morrison, his voice is described as "deep [and] quiet [...] like the roll of low thunder" (2.34). This is linked to the song he later sings, "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry," which is a song of defiance against oppression. And when we first meet him, we already know that Mr. Morrison has been known to fight back against injustice.
The "low thunder" of his voice foreshadows the violence he will have to do later in the book. Remember that when the Wallace brothers attack Mr. Morrison and Papa, it's storming: '[D]idn't none of us hear [the truck] coming 'cause of the rain and thunder and all' (9.175).
It's not surprising, either, that thunder makes a conspicuous appearance right before the final chapter, when the book's tension is at its highest: "Thunder crashed against the corners of the world and lightning split the sky as we reached the road, but we did not stop. We dared not. We had to reach Papa" (11.106).
Check out what's happened: instead of a "roll of low thunder," we've moved on a "crash" against the "corners of the world." All the tension that's been building up throughout the novel culminates in an apocalyptic weather event—one that has changed Cassie's world forever.
Now that's what you call a symbol.
Not many people in the novel have cars. In fact, most of the poor black families get around by foot or with a horse and wagon. The Berrys are lucky enough to have an old Model T Ford, but other than that, the only local people to own cars are Mr. Granger (fancy Packard) and the Wallaces (ominous pick-up truck that shows up in the dead of night).
So what does all this horsepower mean?
Cars mean power—the power of independence. For example, Big Ma tells Little Man that one day he'll have "plenty of clothes and maybe even a car of [his] own to ride around in" (3.12). So, it's definitely something to aspire to.
But cars also have another kind of power: the power to inspire terror. The night men don't trot up on horses; they come roaring up into people's yards in the dead of night with their headlights blazing.
As any teenager—or, you know, adult—knows, cars are also the ultimate status symbol. Check out Mr. Granger's Packard:
Soon the purr of a motor came closer and Mr. Granger's sleek silver Packard eased into view. It was a grand car with chrome shining even in the rain, and the only one like it in the county, so it was said. (3.26)
This ride just drips wealth and opulence (it's "sleek" and "silver"), and shows off Mr. Granger's wealth. Uncle Hammer has the exact same car (only newer, so neener-neener!). He uses it as a mode of defiance when he guns it across Soldier's Bridge before letting the white family cross first (6.164)—and that's got to feel good.
Since he's so concerned with keeping the Logan land, it's not surprising that Papa comes up with a fitting metaphor for the family's relationship to it: the fig tree.
He describes it as having "roots that run deep," and no matter the hardships it faces (like taller trees that steal its sunlight), it "keeps on blooming, bearing good fruit year after year" (9.91). This fig tree symbolizes the Logan family and its relationship with the land. It keeps persisting (just like them), setting down roots in the area (again, like the family), and producing generation after generation of "fruit" that will tenaciously never give up.
The school bus is one wicked dragon that the Logan children eventually succeed in slaying.
No, really. The bus is personified as a "huge yellow dragon breathing fire" (1.68), and is the bane of the children's existence, splashing them with mud as they walk the long distance to school. Taylor portrays the bus as a sort of malevolent force with a mean sort of intelligence.
Stacey's plan to sabotage the bus works, and again Taylor personifies the bus: "Then it sputtered a last murmuring protest and died, its left front wheel in our ditch, its right wheel in the gully, like a lopsided billy goat on its knees" (3.88). After the children have taken their revenge, the bus appears more of an impotent farm animal than an all-powerful dragon.
So, why does Taylor build up the school bus to be the Big Bad? Well, we've seen the literal angle: the bus physically hurts the kids, so they physically hurt it. Easy peasy.
And there's a deeper level. (Isn't there always?) By putting the bus out of commission, the Logan kids are engaging in a type of civil disobedience that levels the school transportation playing field between the black and white schoolchildren. For a time, at least, the white kids will get a little taste of what it's like to walk a mile (or ten) in their shoes.
Er...bare feet, in most cases.
The story is told from Cassie's point-of-view. So we only know what Cassie knows at any given time—which isn't always much, since she's only nine years old.
A story told by a nine-year-old could get a little limiting, so Taylor uses cheats—er, uses various literary techniques—to get around it. For example, Cassie hears a lot of gossip that provides readers with important tidbits of information (naughty Cassie—she is even known to eavesdrop on conversations). She also gets lectures from authority figures, such as Mama, Papa, and Uncle Hammer that give us insight into the book's various messages.
Here's one example of this at work in the novel. Cassie overhears the adults talking at church about how the Berrys were attacked:
The boys and I sat at our study table pretending not to listen, but listening still.
"Henrietta Toggins," said Mrs. Lanier, "you know, Clara Davis' sister that live up there in Strawberry? Well, she's kin to the Berrys and she was with John Henry and Beacon when the trouble got started. [...] They was waitin' there for they gas when some white men come up messin' with them—been drinkin', you know. And Henrietta heard 'em say, 'That's the nigger Sallie Ann said was flirtin' with her." And when she heard that, she said to John Henry, 'Let's get on outa here." (2.54-5)
So, you might ask, why does Taylor have Cassie narrate the story in the first place, since she comes with all these limitations that have to be worked around? For starters, it allows readers to have the experience of learning along with Cassie. It also allows us to see her childish innocence, even though she's subjected to some pretty harsh reality. And, of course, it's a novel written for kids or young adults—so, having a young narrator makes it easier to read.
The opening chapters give us some much-needed exposition. We find out that racial tensions are running high in Cassie's town—really high. So high that a few men have been burned because they dared to speak to a white woman. And we're not talking "burned" like, "Oooh, burn." We're talking literally set on fire. The exposition sets us up to expect a lot of racial conflict.
But before we get to the main conflict, we have to get through some really enraging chapters about racial oppression and inequality, like the black kids having to walk to school while the white kids get a bus, or the black kids getting the white kids' cast-off school books. We're about ready for some conflict, too, by the time we get to Mama's boycott of the Wallace store.
Most of the black families have no choice but to shop at the Wallace store, even though they know they are doing rotten things like selling alcohol to minors and, oh yeah, conducting murderous night raids. So, Mama organizes a boycott—which pretty quickly leads to some serious conflict, both between the white and black communities, and in the black community itself.
And then T.J. makes some more bad choices. It's not like we're surprised—this kid is Bad News—but it sure doesn't help that he shoots his mouth off about who's behind the boycott. Papa Logan is shot on his way back from Vicksburg. Oh, and Mr. Morrison has also badly beaten two white men because of it, so now he's in danger of facing the night men's wrath.
The tipping point comes when R.W. and Melvin Simms trick T.J. into robbing Barnett Mercantile with them, since they know he's been eyeing the pearl-handled gun there. Hurting Mr. and Mrs. Barnett was not part of the plan, though, and when the Simms brothers knock the store owners around, T.J. threatens to tell everyone what happened. Yeah, right. The white Simms brothers badly beat T.J., setting the stage for the book's tragic ending.
And now the violence is all out in the open. The Wallaces and Simms show up at T.J.'s house to punish him for robbing the store—by hanging him. But just as they're about to string him up—and maybe a few other people for good measure—a fire breaks out on Granger land. Everyone heads off to fight the fire, and T.J. is taken into custody by local lawyer Mr. Jamison.
But lightning didn't start that fire: Papa did, and he did it to save T.J. At least temporarily. In the end, T.J. is taken to Strawberry to await his fate, and it doesn't look good. He'll be put on a chain gang, or (more than likely) hanged. Plus, the Logan land might be lost. Cassie cries for both T.J. and the land.