Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is set in Mississippi at the height of the Great Depression; most of the action occurs between 1933 and 1934. The Logan farm, comprising four hundred acres of land, is home to the narrator Cassie, her parents, her three brothers, and her paternal grandmother. Cassie's grandfather, Paul Logan, purchased this land in two separate transactions, acquiring two hundred acres in 1886 and two hundred more in 1918. The family still owes a mortgage on the latter purchase, and the first requires tax payments. Ever since the price of cotton fell in 1930, Cassie's father, David Logan, has had to take jobs in other cities during the off-season to fulfill his financial obligations. The Logans are the sole black property owners in this community, the only black family in the narrative to escape the sharecropping system. Their farm borders a dense forest, with an ancient oak tree serving as an official dividing mark. Although the Logans are not poverty-stricken, their financial resources are quite modest and require careful monitoring to ensure the family's continued independence and survival.
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Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry features a straightforward and uncomplicated style. Taylor's controlled use of symbolism lends depth to the work's major themes. The old oak tree that borders the Logan land, for example, represents the Logans' strength and perseverance. The frequent allusions to slavery afford a backdrop for the Logans' struggle and provide revealing, instructive historical background. The characterizations are, for the most part, effective and believable, although Cassie sometimes seems unbelievably perceptive for her age. Despite limited physical descriptions, the interactions among characters reveal much about their personalities and motivations.
Taylor deftly manipulates diction, shifting appropriately between the relaxed idiom of the children and the rather stilted, impersonal language of teachers addressing their classes. The rhythmic dialect in the informal conversations lends itself well to reading aloud. The pace of the narrative is somewhat slow, rendering the book less exciting than many other novels for young adults, yet the progression of the plot is masterfully controlled and free from confusing subplots. The few flashbacks fit naturally into the context of those scenes in which they appear.
The point of view from which the story is told, that of an eight- or nine-year-old girl, permits a naivete that illuminates an illogical social system. It also offers a view of reality from a character who is still too...
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Throughout the work, Taylor addresses the dynamics of racial tension, and although the dramatization of this sensitive issue is carefully controlled, some students might benefit from background information concerning the era in which the novel is set. The attitudes and tolerance of the older blacks toward social injustices could prove problematic. Some students may find it difficult to accept the older characters' assertions that some situations simply must be endured. Careful preparation should precede discussion of the scenes depicting burnings or referring to lynchings and hangings. Ultimately, the sense of community demonstrated by both blacks and whites toward the end of the novel offsets the acts of violence. The events of the novel need not be distorted or minimized since most younger readers are emotionally capable of confronting the difficult issues raised.
Violence is not a major theme of the work, but the nature of the conflict necessitates some solutions and strategies that contradict the values that families such as the Logans would usually uphold. On occasion, characters in the novel include guns in their preparation for a potential confrontation, but the conflicts are resolved without the use of firearms.
The racial conflict among the school children in the community is not particularly intense and in some instances differs little from normal tension among young people in any community. This dimension of the work should pose...
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Topics for Discussion
1. The Logan family exhibits pride and independence. Which family member seems to exhibit these traits most consistently?
2. The Christmas celebration at the Logans' motivates the recounting of a considerable amount of oral history. What information gleaned from these conversations enables the reader to better understand some facts or some attitudes presented in the novel?
3. How do you rate Mary Logan's strength and leadership ability?
4. Stacey is forced to grow up quickly because of his father's frequent absences. Of the several actions that he takes to protect and maintain the family's interests, which do you consider the most admirable or impressive? Why?
5. Cassie is perplexed by Big Ma's instructions to apologize to Lillian Jean Simms, who has openly humiliated Cassie for accidentally bumping into her on the street. Are you disappointed with Big Ma's actions in this case? Are there other actions by the characters in this novel that disappoint you? Consider some possible explanations for these actions.
6. Cassie and Little Man refuse to accept the worn-out textbooks issued by the school they attend. How do you view their actions? Would some other reaction on their part have been more appropriate?
7. David Logan and his brother Hammer share a determination to keep the Logan land, yet their attitudes toward dealing with the power structure in the community are quite different. Which...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. All societies in one way or another establish roles and expectations for people of different genders and cultural groups. Research the roles and expectations of the early 1930s, the time period covered by this novel. Analyze the extent to which the characters in this work uphold traditional roles.
2. Review the descriptions of slavery in this work and compare them with descriptions in other works for young adults such as Amos Fortune, Free Man by Elizabeth Yates or Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad by Ann Petty. Identify the major differences in the descriptions and give as many reasons as you can that account for these differences.
3. Mary Logan is fired from her job as a secondary school teacher because of negative testimony from one of her son's friends and school board members' dissatisfaction with her teaching philosophy. Assume the character of Mary Logan and write a journal entry at the end of the day on which you were dismissed.
4. Oral history, the sharing through conversation of memorable incidents from the past, seems to be a cherished tradition of the Logan family. Write about an event that is shared time after time by older members of your family and describe the importance of this event to you.
5. T. J. Avery is the source of many conflicts in the narrative, and his motivations are not always clear. Select any event in which you think T.J. behaves...
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Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is the second of three books about the Logan family. Taylor's first work, Song of the Trees, addresses similar themes: the complex nature of racial conflict, the strength of family love, and the Logans' determination to keep their land. She continues the saga of the Logan family— which in many respects resembles her own family—in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. In Let the Circle Be Unbroken, the same characters continue to grow, their interactions further clarifying Taylor's themes of family pride and determination in the midst of racial strife.
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For Further Reference
Dussell, Sharon L. "Profile: Mildred D. Taylor." Language Arts 58 (May 1981): 599-604. Presents interesting biographical details and relates them to Taylor's writing and world view. Dussell discusses Song of the Trees at some length.
Estes, Glenn E., ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 52. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. An excellent biographical and literary source that chronicles Taylor's early life as well as her literary career. Also summarizes and provides critical comments on Taylor's works.
Fagelman, Phyllis J. "Mildred Taylor." Horn Book 53 (August 1977): 410-414. A biographical sketch that includes an analysis of Taylor's effectiveness as a writer and a chronological survey of Taylor's life.
Rees, David. "The Color of Skin: Mildred Taylor." In The Marble in the Water: Essays on Contemporary Writers of Fiction for Children and Young Adults. Boston: Horn Book, 1980. Discusses Taylor's work in the tradition of other works addressing racial prejudice. The issue of racism, rather than family pride and loyalty, is emphasized in this essay, which offers an essential and interesting perspective on the work.
Taylor, Mildred. "Newbery Award Acceptance." Horn Book 53 (August 1977): 401 -409. An outstanding and intensely personal speech by Mildred Taylor before the American Library Association. The speech, mostly autobiographical, details quite effectively the influence of Taylor's...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Cobb, Cicely Denean. “’If You Give a Nigger an Inch, They Will Take an Ell’: The Role of Education in Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and Let the Circle be Unbroken. ” In Exploring Culturally Diverse Literature for Children and Adolescents: Learning to Listen in New Ways, edited by Darwin L. Henderson and Jill P. May. Boston: Pearson Allyn and Bacon, 2005. Compares the representation of education in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry with that in Taylor’s later novel. Discusses the importance of representing childhood education in literature for children.
Fogelman, Phyllis J. “Mildred D. Taylor.” The Horn Book Magazine 53 (August, 1977): 410-414. A brief description of Taylor’s early life and the influences on her first two books.
Harper, Mary Turner. “Merger and Metamorphosis in the Fiction of Mildred D. Taylor.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 13, no. 1 (Summer, 1988): 75-80. Harper analyzes the communal oral and musical tradition in Taylor’s novels and states that the tradition “infuses Mildred Taylor’s work, resulting in an imaginative blending of history, cultural traditions and practices so as to create a sequential bildungsroman in four works.”
Peterson, Linda Kauffman, and Marilyn Leathers Solt. Newbery and Caldecott...
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