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.
Cassie Logan’s innocence allows the reader to experience racial intolerance in the pure light of her naïveté and thereby to share her dawning consciousness of its violence, horror, and injustice. Expecting to gain knowledge of herself and others from books, she instead discovers “the way of things” in the physical and emotional violence of her racially dichotomous society. The reader follows her progress through a hazardous course in how to survive in a world hostile to one’s very skin. Like many books for the young, this novel shows issues in black and white, but here that does not make them simpler. Cassie undergoes a rite of passage from the simplicity of family unity to the complexity of the fear and fury of racial discord. Yet the positive values instilled in her by her family live on. Her family’s support and love seem to strengthen in the face of adversity. Paradoxically, with new experience and new knowledge gained, Cassie’s loss is profound. Her closing words are elegiac; she weeps and laments both the injuries done T. J. and the injuries done the land.
Stacey Logan, Cassie’s eldest brother, also matures in the course of this year. A moody, serious twelve-year-old, he is a typical enough young adolescent to be chagrined that his own mother is his seventh-grade teacher. He learns important lessons about loyalty, friendship, and responsibility. In his father’s absence, he strives to be the head of his household. He evolves from acting according to a blind allegiance to his friends (as when he refuses to betray T. J.’s cheating at school) to reasoned accountability for his own actions, as when he confesses to his mother that he has broken his promise not to go to the Wallaces’ store.
Christopher John Logan is unlike both his brothers and his sister in his passivity. Even on the night of T. J.’s beating and the fire on the Logan land, he refuses to budge from the house. He makes no waves; he sees no evil. Six-year-old Clayton Chester Logan, “Little Man,” seems to have been born an adult. A compulsion for neatness in his personal grooming extends to an insistence on logic and order in the world around him. The incident of the dirty book on the first day of class not only reveals his intelligence, pride, and fierceness but also dramatizes Cassie’s caring and generosity.
Mary Logan, a strong, protective mother, has worked for fourteen years as a teacher. She is horrified by the burnings of three members of the Berry family. She responds by organizing a boycott of the Wallace store, because the Wallaces seem to be behind such acts of violence. She is a positive role model for her children as a loving person, a well-educated professional, and a socially concerned member of her community willing to sacrifice for principles and the betterment of the community.
David Logan is a hardworking and gentle man forced to leave his family in order to support them. His greatest pride is the four hundred acres of “Logan land.” The land holds the roots of his family and literally and figuratively nourishes their future. His children’s love and admiration for him are boundless. His strength as a provider, his devotion to his family, and his cunning and courage in the face of mortal danger counter stereotypes of the irresponsible self-involved black male.
T. J. Avery, a fourteen-year-old con man and petty thief, gets into trouble when he falls for the exploitive flattery of two young white men. Although T. J. is disliked and distrusted by virtually everyone, his punishment far exceeds the weight of his crime. He is duped into helping to rob a store. His companions attack and kill Mr. Barnett, one of the owners, and then frame T. J. for the crime. After a bad beating and a narrow escape from lynching, T. J. is thrown in jail, in all likelihood to be hanged for murder. The final and greatest injustice of the novel is T. J.’s fate. Although T. J. is not guiltless, he is no murderer; the fact that he is a child and a dupe of the real murderers creates the kind of moral complexity that Cassie is coming to recognize and trying to understand.
Uncle Hammer Logan, David’s brother, has fled the racism and poverty of the Deep South for the freer and more profitable streets of Chicago. Although he is hot-tempered, this Logan male also exemplifies positive qualities of caring, personal courage, and responsibility.
Cassie Logan, age nine, the narrator and central character, a bright rebel who wants fairness and justice in this world. As an African American child in the South, she learns instead about injustice and discrimination. By getting sweet, subtle revenge for her humiliation at the hands of Lillian Jean Simms, Cassie proves her successful passage through childhood innocence by the end of the novel.
Stacey Logan, her twelve-year-old brother, the Logan family’s eldest child, who is itching to become the man of the family while his father is away. Stacey’s growth to maturity matches Cassie’s when he proves himself a loyal friend and as resourceful as his father.
Christopher-John Logan, another brother, age seven.
Clayton Chester Logan
Clayton Chester Logan, called “Little Man,” the youngest Logan, age six.
David Logan (Papa), who works on the railroad in Louisiana for part of each year in order to make money to pay the mortgage on the Logan land. David Logan is a man of compassion and reason; his quick thinking at the end of the novel saves his family.
Mary Logan (Mama), the seventh-grade teacher at the school the four children attend. She is sensitive and loving and has a strong physical and spiritual bond with her husband. Their love spills over onto others beyond the circle of their family.
Big Mar, Cassie’s grandmother (Papa’s mother), a woman in her sixties who helps to teach Cassie the importance of the family and their land.
Uncle Hammer, Papa’s hot-tempered older brother, who lives in Detroit and who must sell his car to help the family.
Mr. Morrison, the huge “human tree” Papa brings back from Louisiana to help protect the family against night riders.