Characterization is one of the real strengths of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. The book’s characters are believable and, for the most part, sympathetic, and younger readers can easily identify with them.
The narrator and central character of the novel is nine-year-old Cassie Logan, a bright (some might say precocious) rebel who gains a fuller identity in the course of the novel through her family’s struggles with racism and injustice during the Depression. She is, of course, no blank slate when the novel opens (she knows, for example, that “punishment was always less severe when I poured out the whole truth to Mama on my own before she had heard anything from anyone else”), but she still cannot understand why Mr. Barnett will not wait on them at his store in Strawberry. Through the actions of the novel, Cassie learns that—as Mama puts it—“in the world outside this house, things are not always as we would have them to be.” Cassie’s treatment of Lillian Jean Simms toward the novel’s end is an indication that she will survive in this society, and her first-person narration allows readers to witness her growth and development through the novel.
One of the unusual qualities of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry as an initiation novel is that it has not one but two protagonists. While Cassie is learning about the world and moving from innocence and naïveté, she is also telling about her older brother Stacey’s taking more responsibility and growing into maturity himself. At the opening of the novel, with his father away working on the railroad, Stacey is anxious to become the man of the family, and he resents the arrival of Mr. Morrison. He is already a young man with several clear Logan traits: It is his loyalty to his brother Little Man (humiliated when the white school bus muddies him) that leads to his plan of revenge, and he refuses to betray his friend T. J. when he gets caught with T. J.’s “cheat notes.” Stacey is still learning, however. When he gives away his new coat to T. J. because the other boy ridicules him for wearing it, Uncle Hammer warns him: “You care what a lot of useless people say ’bout you you’ll never get anywhere, ’cause there’s a lotta folks don’t want you to make it.” In the attack on the wagon, Stacey is unable to hold the horse; his father’s leg is broken, and Stacey feels responsible. In his actions at the end of the novel, however, Stacey demonstrates that he has become his own man. When T. J. shows up hurt at the end of the novel, Stacey responds with loyalty, and his actions help to save the Logan family. In the sequel to Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Stacey emerges as the central character.
The Logan parents have a similar complexity and depth. Although she has been teaching for fourteen years, Mrs. Logan is still considered something of a disruptive maverick by her fellow teachers. Children may have to learn the realities of race relations, she tells a colleague early on, “but that doesn’t mean they have to accept them.” She is eventually fired for adhering to this principle. She is also sensitive and loving: When Papa surprises her by arriving with Mr. Morrison, for example, she graciously accepts him. David Logan, on the other hand, is a compassionate man who “always took time to think through any move he made,” but his quick thinking at the end of the novel saves the Logan family.
Even minor characters play important roles in the novel. Uncle Hammer is a “tall, handsome man” who is more hot-tempered than his younger brother and who provides an interesting contrast to Papa for the children. Jeremy Simms is a poor, sad boy who wants to do the impossible—befriend the Logan children—but whose actions underline the important theme of friendship in the novel. Only the adult whites, liberal (like the lawyer Mr. Jamison) or racist (like the Wallaces and the Simmses), seem two-dimensional and stereotypical—quite a triumph in a novel aimed primarily at young readers.