The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The characters in Let Me Breathe Thunder are described in simple, direct language. The hard-nosed Step fights his desires and often acts kindly. His affection for Ed and Hi Boy is subtle, in contrast to his tough exterior. He keeps an old dog tail for good luck. Step wants to be good, but his basic desires and economic conditions prove his undoing. With no past and no future, Step lives for the moment.

Ed is the narrator and principal character. He tells his tale in plain, everyday English. He does not reveal his age, background, or family history. Ed and Step live for the road. As traveling buddies, they share a past of trains and jobs and an affection stronger than any in the novel. At one time they had a dog named Butch that was killed by a train. They are irresponsible and happy until they run into Hi Boy, a Mexican boy whose family has been arrested for breaking into a train to steal food. Hi Boy tries to fit into their wandering life, but Step thinks the boy is not tough enough to make it on the road.

Ed, Step, and Hi Boy go to Sampson’s farm and confront the issues of family, work, and responsibility they had neglected for so long. Sampson’s loneliness is relieved by the presence of the boys, and Step and Ed fall into a routine. Anna falls for Step and shatters the calm. Step is torn between sexual desire and fear of commitment to Anna. Ed gets Step to promise to leave Anna alone, but Step breaks his promise. After sleeping with Anna, Step wants to flee immediately but stays to get his paycheck and meet his fate. Anna sneaks away from the house and...

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Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Ed, the narrator, a white man in his twenties. Ed, a migrant worker, is quiet, reflective, and loyal to his buddy Step. He tells nothing about his family or background. He killed steers in St. Louis, Missouri, and rides the rails from job to job.


Step, a white man in his twenties. He is an impetuous leader with red hair and a quick temper. A former fighter, he seems cold on the outside but hides a sensitive soul. Little is revealed concerning his background. He works hard, drinks hard, fights hard, and has little respect for women, yet is very responsible in taking care of an abandoned nine-year-old boy.

Hi Boy

Hi Boy, a nine-year-old Mexican boy abandoned by his family in a Southwestern town called La Cruces. He gives away the last of his money when he meets Step and Ed. Hi Boy shoots a rifle. His name comes from the phrase he often speaks.


Sampson, the owner of Four Mile Farm, an apple and sheep ranch in Yakima Valley. He hires Ed and Step. He is a kind, lonely man, a widower with one daughter. He speaks Spanish and urges Hi Boy to live with him. His four sons died in World War I, and his wife died of grief soon afterward.

Anna Sampson

Anna Sampson, a blond teenage girl who likes film magazines and romance. She falls in love with Step and tries to get him to stay on the farm. Her final attempt to acquire independence results in tragedy.


Mag, a fifty-three-year-old black woman. She is a former prostitute who now owns a brothel, a house, and land in Yakima. Mag is tough but kind and affectionate to Ed, Hi Boy, and her old friend Step. Mag loves a special handmade four-barrel shotgun but cannot shoot.


Cooper, Mag’s companion, a “high yellow” black man with failing health who has a wild past. His struggle with Anna and Mag creates the climax of the novel.