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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 882

Let the Circle Be Unbroken recounts one family’s struggle against prejudice and poverty as seen through the eyes and experiences of Cassie, the main character. The Logans battle the Great Depression, powerful, greedy, white landowners of rural Mississippi, segregation, and domestic tragedies that threaten to destroy the family at every turn. They maintain their dignity, pride, and faith, however, and keep the family together.

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The novel begins with friends and neighbors preoccupied with the tragedy that has struck T. J., Joe Avery’s son, and the effects of the Depression on rural Mississippi. T. J. and his two white friends, R. W. and Melvin Simms, had broken into Barnett’s Mercantile and stolen a gun. In their scuffle to escape, Melvin fatally had shot the owner, Jim Lee Barnett; Papa Logan had set his field ablaze to prevent a white vigilante group from lynching T. J. for the murder. T. J.’s arrest and impending execution greatly distress the Logans, who have no faith in the white judicial system and view the trial as only a legal way to lynch a black boy. In fact, the prosecution, the judge, and the all-white jury are so eager to hang the “nigger” that neither Justice Overton’s testimony linking R. W. and Melvin to the murder nor the holes that the defense bores into Mrs. Barnett’s testimony that she saw “niggers” murder her husband is enough to forestall the jury’s guilty verdict. Cassie and her brothers, Christopher-John and Little Man (who steal away to the courthouse to observe the trial), witness firsthand racism and segregation at work in legal garb and must fight to maintain their self-esteem.

Back on the farm, Papa and Mr. Morrison, a friend, repair tools and broken fences in preparation for crop time, which ends the short school year by drawing everyone to the fields. They are wary of the crop-reduction officer, Mr. Handsworth, but must also resist Harlan Granger, who wants to forge Papa Logan’s subsidy check—which the AAA has given him in return for destroying his cotton crop—and run him off his duly purchased property. Only a few blocks away, Moe Turner’s family, friends of the Logans who, like many other poor farmers, have been sharecropping on the Montier plantation since the mid-1880’s, are threatened with starvation through persistent poverty. Concurrently, Miz Lee Annie Lees, a sixty-year-old neighbor hard hit by segregation and the Depression, memorizes large sections of the Mississippi constitution and dreams of improving conditions for African Americans through the ballot before she dies.

The scene changes as Cassie and her brothers learn that their family’s tradition has been violated by Cousin Bud, who has married a white woman from New York. The family’s resentment over his action runs very deep, so he must leave prematurely after promising to take his daughter to visit with the family. However, this is only one of Cassie’s worries, because conditions have worsened on the farm, and Papa must leave home in search of work. Cousin Bud returns with Suzella, his mulatto daughter, who also antagonizes the Logans by considering herself white. Cassie’s turbulent relationship with Suzella reaches a breaking point when Suzella attempts to befriend white boys in the neighborhood. While the family feud goes on, the local farmers’ union is busted by big planters who continue to prey on the poor sharecroppers, more neighbors are forced off the land, and Stacey and Moe run away to Louisiana.

With Stacey and Moe’s departure, T. J.’s execution, Papa’s working far away from home, and the Depression taking its toll on family relations, Cassie loses control and vents her frustration on her classmates. Christmas morning arrives, however, and family members greet one another warmly. They gather in a circle around the fire to sing a song, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” Afterward, they all go to church. This brings Cassie and her younger brothers a feeling of warmth but does not eliminate the pain they feel, for Cousin Bud has returned to take Suzella (now their friend) back to New York. When Cassie tries to escort them as far as a friend’s place, Suzella is assaulted by three white boys, who earlier had wanted to date her but then discovered that her father was black. Stripping Cousin Bud in the presence of Suzella and Cassie, they attempt to lynch him for marrying a white woman, but Mr. Morrison intervenes. Cassie and Suzella are horrified.

Cassie, who has become interested in reading the Mississippi constitution, gets yet another lesson in segregation at the registrar’s office when she goes to see Miz Lee Annie register to vote, but she is subjected to insults and called a foolish nigger meddling in white business. At the same time, Mama and Papa Logan, who accompanied Cassie to Strawberry, find themselves surrounded by a large demonstration by poor union farmers, and Harlan Granger exploits their presence for his own ends. This tragic episode ends in a comedy of errors, as Wade Jamison assists the Logans in securing the release of Stacey and Moe from police custody, and the family rejoices. The circle remains unbroken, and Cassie, Stacey, Christopher-John, and Little Man have reason to look to the future with optimism.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 636

Based on experiences typical of those endured by the author’s parents, Let the Circle Be Unbroken is a fictionalized portrayal of how a rural Mississippi community, and the Logan family in particular, faced adversity and survived during the Depression of the 1930’s. The novel contains fourteen chapters that separate major episodes or denote passage of time. Cassie Logan, the nine-year-old daughter of David and Mary Logan (“Mama” and “Papa”), narrates the story.

The opening chapter establishes a theme of discrimination and abuse of the community’s black families. T. J. Avery, Stacey’s classmate, is unjustly accused of killing a white store owner. The black families wonder whether T. J. can get a trial at all, and, if so, whether it can possibly be a fair one. Wade Jamison, a white lawyer whom the Logans respect, attempts to get T. J. acquitted, but he is unsuccessful; T. J. is sentenced to death.

As winter comes, the plight of both black and white sharecroppers and day laborers is revealed. Most of the area’s families live in one-room shacks with dirt floors. Even Papa, a landowner who has a nice five-room house and admits to being better off than many others, is worried about paying the taxes on his land. Papa has been cheated out of payment for his cotton crop by Horace Granger, the wealthy white plantation owner.

Meanwhile, Lee Annie Lees, the sixty-five-year-old aunt of a local black family, announces as she turns sixty-five that she will study for the voter-registration test. Cassie helps her to memorize all laws in the Constitution in preparation for the test, aware, however, that Horace Granger, for whom Lee Annie’s relatives are sharecroppers, can control her fate. When representatives of a Farm Workers’ Union solicit Papa’s support for an effort for “both black and white” he promises to “think it through,” but his enthusiasm for the union is diminished by his suspicion that black farmers would not really be protected by the organization. As tax-payment time approaches, Papa considers working temporarily on the railroad and later does so. Stacey realizes that times are hard and begs to quit school to get a job, but the Logans forbid it, insisting that they will make ends meet somehow.

Several times Papa’s brother Hammer comes from the North to visit, as does Bud Rankin, Mary Logan’s nephew. When it becomes known that Bud has a white wife, there is tension between Bud and Hammer in particular, but Bud asks the Logans if his daughter Suzella can visit. Encouraged by her mother, Suzella has often passed for white so things “won’t be so hard” for her. Cassie has trouble accepting her: she resents giving up her bed and seeing Stacey give Suzella all his attention, but she grudgingly tolerates her.

Things worsen when the county agent requires some families to plow up the parts of their cotton crop that are over the quota. Stacey finally feels compelled to do something to help, so he and a friend, Moe, run away to take jobs cutting cane. The family is distraught; Mama sends for Papa, but it is difficult to know how to look for the boys. Cassie questions how the adults can pretend that everything is all right, but Mama reminds her that “life goes on no matter what.” As feared, Granger sees to it that Lee Annie is told that she has failed the voter registration test she had vowed to take. On New Year’s Day, news finally comes that Stacey and Moe have been located. Again, Mr. Jamison helps the Logans; he finds Stacey, who is reunited with his family. Cassie remembers her mother’s saying that one day Stacey would be her friend again, and she sees that her mother’s prediction is true.

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