Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is a psychologically realistic, historically accurate picture of African American family life in rural Mississippi. It is also an excellent initiation novel about a young girl growing up to learn about the values and dangers of her Depression-era world.
The Logan family lives in Spokane County, Mississippi, on four hundred acres of land that Cassie Logan’s grandfather, a former slave, purchased years before. Harlan Granger, whose family originally owned the Logan property and who owns all the farms around it (now sharecropped by poorer black families), wants the Logan parcel back, and it is a struggle for the Logan family to hold onto their land. The novel is set in rural Mississippi in the early 1930’s, and conditions for African Americans could hardly be worse. Just how bad they are, Cassie Logan soon learns.
Cassie, who narrates the novel, is a smart, curious girl who loves her parents, especially her father, who is off working in Louisiana. When Papa Logan returns home in chapter 2, he is accompanied by Mr. Morrison, who has been fired from his railroad job for fighting with whites and whom Papa is bringing home to help protect the family against a recent wave of vigilante terrorism; distant neighbors have just been visited by the dreaded night riders, and one man has already died of burns.
Several plot lines grow out of this opening situation. Papa tells the children to stay away from the Wallaces’ crossroads store, knowing the Wallaces are involved in the recent terror, and he organizes a boycott. Mama is soon fired, allegedly for teaching black history but actually for being involved in the boycott. When Papa and Morrison go into Vicksburg for supplies, Papa is shot, and his leg is broken. Morrison saves Papa, but another income has been lost. As the momentum of the novel builds, these two stories coalesce: The fight to save the land from Harlan Granger and the fight against the racism and brutality of the Wallaces are intertwined, because the Wallace store is on Granger land.
After a series of adventures for both children and adults, the exciting climax comes when the night riders try to lynch T. J. Avery, a friend of the children who has been involved in a robbery. Stacey acts quickly, sending the other children to warn the Logans that the crowd will come to their house next. The resourceful David Logan sets fire to his own cotton field, which borders Harlan Granger’s land, and the mob rushes to put it out. Black and white, men and women, the community fights the fire through the night.
The crisis is not over. The land has been saved, the Logans have survived as a family and are probably even stronger, and two of the children—Cassie and Stacey—have learned more about the world of cruelty and injustice and how to maneuver in it safely. The novel does not end on any note of false optimism, however: the Logans are still poor, and racism and violence are still everywhere about them. “I cried for T. J.,” Cassie says at the end of the novel, “For T. J. and the land.” Her growth over the course of the novel indicates that the strong, independent Cassie will be able to operate in this racist society after the novel closes, but her tears at the end are also a sign of sadness for her loss of innocence.
In the course of the novel, Cassie comes to learn a great deal about the sacrifices her family is making to keep their land, about their struggle for equality, and about their pride in themselves and their heritage. As much as from anyone else, Cassie learns these lessons from her family; the Logans overwhelm readers with their warmth and mutual support. Big Ma tells Cassie about the importance of the Logan land and, by the lesson of her hard work in the Logan household, how much she is willing to do to hold on to it. Cassie’s mother is, like her daughter, a real rebel, but she is fired for holding on to her principles.