Mildred D. Taylor Essay - Critical Essays

Taylor, Mildred D(elois)


Mildred D(elois) Taylor

Black American writer for young adults.

Taylor's Song of the Trees and its sequel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry are felt to depict the oppression that has been a part of the black tradition with power and dignity. Taylor credits much of the inspiration for both books to stories told to her by her father about their ancestors and their struggles to establish themselves as landowners after the abolition of slavery. Taylor noticed the difference between this oral history and the history she was taught in school; while her father's stories emphasized the fact that her ancestors retained their pride despite their defeats and sorrows, she discovered that history books portrayed black Americans as weak and vulnerable. Taylor wrote her books to refute this image by telling the truth about her people, thus passing on the spiritual legacy of her ancestors.

Set in Mississippi during the 1930s, both of Taylor's works concern the Logan family; these books stress the family's independence and strength as they fight to maintain their land in the face of violence and the hatred of their white neighbors. These titles, part of a proposed four-volume series, drew an almost unanimously positive response. Critics have praised her ability to present emotional issues in an unsentimental, controlled style without losing the impact of her story. She has also been praised for the poetic quality of her prose, for her characterizations, and for the fact that her books are not social or political tracts disguised as fiction. Taylor's works have also been favorably compared to Alex Haley's saga, Roots. They appeal to a wide range of young adults, which suggests Taylor's successful interpretation of the universality of the black experience. Song of the Trees received an award from the Council on Interracial Books for Children and was named Outstanding Book of the Year by The New York Times in 1973. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry won the 1977 Newbery Medal. (See also Something About the Author, Vol. 15.)

Jean Fritz

First are the trees behind the house…. [They] are the joy of young Cassie's life—trunks to hug, leaves that sing, branches that protect. With such a forest, a girl can feel rich even though this is the Depression and money is scarce, particularly in Mississippi for black people. Cassie's father has to go clear to Louisiana to find work, and sometimes when he sends money home it is taken from the envelope before the family gets it. Still, no matter what happens, the trees sing their song, and that is a comfort.

But then come the white crosses on the trees, and the white men come….

["Song of the Trees"] is a slender book and so moving, the temptation is to tell the whole story. But the important thing is that Cassie's father, David, comes home and that we, the readers, meet him. We are not likely to forget him. He is a man who knows the full measure of his manhood.

"A black man's always gotta be ready to die," he says. "And it don't make me any difference if I die today or tomorrow. Just as long as I die right."

So at the end the white men go away (at least for a time), and part of the forest is saved. Still, the sounds of those axes ring on long after the last page of this triumphant book. And well they may, for this is a true story and truly told. A story to linger over.

Jean Fritz, "Children's Books Spring 1975: 'Song of the Trees'," in The New York Times Book Review (© by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 4, 1975, p. 39.

Anita Silvey

The dedication of [Song of the Trees]—thirteen lines which end "To my grandparents … who bridged the generations between slavery and freedom; and To the Family, who fought and survived"—immediately sets the tone of black pride that permeates every page…. [The] book is almost written to formula: Blacks encounter evil whites who attempt to rob them of their possessions and dignity, but a strong, black man counteracts with force. But what could have been a banal, trite book has been saved by its description of a child's feeling for nature which elevates the story from the socio-political realm…. The simple story has been written with great conviction and strength, and Cassie's descriptions of the trees add a poetic touch.

Anita Silvey, "Stories for the Middle Readers: 'Song of the Trees'," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1975 by the Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. LI, No. 4, August, 1975, p. 384.

Zena Sutherland

In a depression-era story based on an incident in the author's family history [Song of the Trees], a confrontation between a mercenary white man and a black man guarding his property is taut with drama…. The writing style is fairly brisk, verging on the poetic whenever Cassie speaks of her beloved trees; the characterization of the children is minimal, while that of the adults is stronger; the plot is nicely constructed for the length of the story.

Zena Sutherland, "New Titles for Children and Young People: 'Song of the Trees'," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (reprinted by permission of The University of Chicago Press; © 1975 by the University of Chicago), Vol. 29, No. 2, October, 1975, p. 35.

Joyce E. Arkhurst

The confrontation [between the Logan family and the white work crew in Song of the Trees] symbolizes much of the history of Black struggle—economic defenselessness, the Black man's dramatic bravery in the face of white power, a child forced to assume adult responsibility and the children's fears in threatening situations….

[This] story will be enjoyed by young readers.

Joyce E. Arkhurst, "The Bookshelf: 'Song of the Trees'," in Interracial Books for Children Bulletin (reprinted by permission of Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, 1841 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10023), Vol. 6, Nos. 3-4, 1975, p. 8.

Susan Cooper

[Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is] a good straightforward novel about racial prejudice, fierce without being bitter, wholly absorbing…. The author brings a controlled power from her own family background to electrify her calm prose toward a wonderfully shaped climax.

Susan Cooper, "Newbery Medalist Susan Cooper Reviews New Novels," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1976 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), November 3, 1976, p. 20.∗

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Sally Holmes Holtze

[Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry] presents injustice and several ways of dealing with it…. There is little relief from the tension of frightening events, and the reader is able to identify with Cassie's frustration and anger as she experiences great unfairness and witnesses crimes against Black people. The events and settings of the powerful novel are presented with such verisimilitude and the characters are so carefully drawn that one might assume the book to be autobiographical, if the author were not so young.

Sally Holmes Holtze, "Stories for Intermediate Readers: 'Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry'," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1976 by the Horn Book,...

(The entire section is 114 words.)

Emily R. Moore

[Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry] describes a year during which Cassie Logan learns to handle the indignities inflicted upon herself, her family and neighbors. She also learns the importance of her family's struggle to keep their land and their economic independence….

Throughout the book, the reader is moved to tears by Ms. Taylor's vibrant, exquisite and simple style. The dialogue is lightly seasoned with Southern colloquialisms.

After reading Cassie's last lines—"And I cried for those things which had happened in the night and would not pass. I cried for T.J. For T.J. and the land"—you want to turn back and start all over again.

Roll of Thunder, Hear...

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Ruby Martin

Song of the Trees is so beautifully told, the prose rings poetry….

The children are charming, disarming, personal, and not too private in their love and appreciation for the "sharp-needled pines," the "shaggy-bark hickories," and the "sweet alligator gum trees" which tower helplessly on "Big Ma's" land. They forebodingly await their devastation with their song quieted in an implied anticipation of their destruction.

The story builds smoothly and culminates in a clash of willfulness … and of the aesthetic forest which captures the reader with its tender personality.

The book has much to recommend it. Mildred Taylor handles her characters with a fine...

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I was blessed with a special father, a man who had unyielding faith in himself and his abilities, and who, knowing himself to be inferior to no one, tempered my learning with his wisdom. In the foreword to Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry I described my father as a master storyteller; he was much more than that. A highly principled, complex man who did not have an excellent education or a white-collar job, he had instead strong moral fiber and a great wealth of what he always said was simply plain common sense. Throughout my childhood he impressed upon my sister and me that we were somebody, that we were important and could do or be anything we set our minds to do or be. (p. 402)

Through him my...

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Phyllis J. Fogelman

"A natural writer" is an overused expression I don't particularly like, but in speaking of Mildred Taylor it seems absolutely appropriate. Mildred's words flow smoothly, effortlessly, it seems, and they abound in richness, harmony, and rhythm. Her stories unfold in a full, leisurely way, well suited to and evocative of her Southern settings. Her ability to bring her characters to life and to involve her readers is remarkable. In short, Mildred is one of the few people of whom I have felt: This woman was born to write. (pp. 410-11)

Phyllis J. Fogelman, "Mildred D. Taylor," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1977 by the Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. LIII, No. 4,...

(The entire section is 114 words.)

Naomi Mitchison

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is an extremely moving story of life down on the Mississippi during the times of the depression—not so long ago. The memory is still fresh; if it were not Mildred Taylor could not have made it into such an outstandingly gripping narrative…. There is the hideous shadow of violence everywhere, steadily rising to a fearful climax, with the mean whites shoring up their power. Yet, behind it all, there is the possibility of justice slowly coming.

The people in the book are real, and so is the background, cotton and forest, mouth-watering food. Young people shouldn't find the southern American speech too difficult, though it would be best read aloud. It is...

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Margaret Payne

It will be a pity if the literary title, the jacket illustration and Newbery Medal caption brand [Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry] as another well written but self-conscious tale of civil rights. It does for its period and place what Laura Ingalls Wilder did for the pioneers, and had the author used Mrs Wilder's third person narrative, the impact might have been greater. As in the 'Little House' books, there are many incidents of fun, family conversations and drama which would repay re-reading when the moral implications could be absorbed in a more subtle way. It deserves a wide audience…. (p. 47)

Margaret Payne, "Seven to Eleven: 'Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry'," in...

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Margery Fisher

Burningly honest as [Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry] undoubtedly is, it has the air of autobiography in its crowded details and assumptive descriptions, while the raw emotionalism needs to be disciplined and channelled if it is to make a proper impact as fiction. There is much talent in this extended chronicle of a negro family in Mississippi in the early 'thirties, and a very evident truth in episodes derived from the author's father which show up the bigotries and brutal social alignments of the time. But the strength of feeling in the book has been too much for the characters. They remain dim, stiff figures manipulated for the sake of certain key situations, and they are so far based on the author's own family...

(The entire section is 175 words.)