By Elizabeth Wroten
Middle Grade Review: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor
On 30, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Why is the land so important to Cassie’s family? It takes the events of one turbulent year—the year of the night riders and the burnings, the year a white girl humiliates Cassie in public simply because she’s black—to show Cassie that having a place of their own is the Logan family’s lifeblood. It is the land that gives the Logans their courage and pride—no matter how others may degrade them, the Logans possess something no one can take away.
Considering this won a Newbery Award I’m surprised I haven’t read it before. I was only vaguely aware of it’s presence in middle school. Such a shame because it was a fantastic book. It should be taught in more English classes instead of some of the boring, male- and white-centric novels we read in middle and high school (Catcher in the Rye, I’m looking at you).
Our library has one or two of the Logan series so I picked this up both because of its awards and because I was curious if we should add it to our collection. I’m sort of torn. It isn’t the longest of the Logan books and it was certainly interesting and engaging. But it was also a tough read in terms of reading level. Plus this is a much more introspective book and I think kids who aren’t already strong readers won’t have the stamina to get through it. If I had picked it up in late elementary school and even into middle school I wouldn’t have finished it, let alone appreciated and enjoyed it. It would have just been too hard.
I think if one of our classes studied Reconstruction Era and/or the Depression I would highly recommend it as a book to read as a class. With a teacher guiding fifth graders through, it’s possible. The book takes place during the Depression, but you can see threads of slavery and Reconstruction and Jim Crow in the story that would make for excellent tie-ins with history studies and bring on tough, but necessary, conversations about institutional racism and systems put in place to keep anyone who isn’t white, down.
The story was absolutely heart-wrenching and heart-warming. The Logan family faces a lot of challenges from racism, to white supremacists, to poverty, to a father being away at work. Plus a lot of hardships befall them. Their mother is fired from her teaching job for teaching black pride and history. Their father breaks his leg and is unable to go back to his job on the railroad. And payments on their land and farm are coming due because white people who don’t like them are fiddling with the system and trying to force them into foreclosure. But they also have a large close-knit family that promises to see them through. Cassie makes for a great narrator for all these events. While realistic and at times introspective about their situation, she is also optimistic. Plus she gets some AWESOME revenge on the white school’s bus and on the girl who humiliates her. The book itself is also nuanced in its look at Southern life. There are out and out racists and bigots and there are white people who support and help the Logans and other black families, overtly and covertly. There are African Americans who are afraid and timid and there are African Americans who stand up for what they believe even if it means putting themselves out there as targets. In other words there is no binary here.
Although this is technically book four in the series that chronicles the Logan family, it made perfect sense picking it up and reading it. There were a few references to events that had happened in earlier generations, but they were explained within the context of the story and didn’t leave me wondering if I needed to go back to earlier books. This may be in part due to the order the books in the series were written and published. I don’t think they necessarily came out in chronological order.
I really think that this is truly a middle grade book suited to middle school age. I don’t think elementary students can’t handle anything in it, but the reading itself might be very taxing. I’m going to have see what others we have in the series and if they need to be passed up to our middle/high school library or if I should flesh out the series a bit. I will note that the first book chronologically is The Land and clocks in at 400 pages!! Yipes, that would be a looong book for a fifth grader.