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Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

by Mildred D. Taylor
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The Characters

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Last Updated on July 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 704

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.

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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.

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Latest answer posted May 5, 2013, 8:50 am (UTC)

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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.

The Characters

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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.

Characters Discussed

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Cassie Logan

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

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

Christopher-John Logan, another brother, age seven.

Clayton Chester Logan

Clayton Chester Logan, called “Little Man,” the youngest Logan, age six.

David Logan

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

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

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

Uncle Hammer, Papa’s hot-tempered older brother, who lives in Detroit and who must sell his car to help the family.

Mr. Morrison

Mr. Morrison, the huge “human tree” Papa brings back from Louisiana to help protect the family against night riders.

Themes and Characters

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The pride with which the Logans work to keep their land demonstrates the value they place on independence. The White landowners—the Grangers, the Montiers, and the Harrisons—all work to maintain the White power structure, using various strategies to achieve this purpose. Another prominent family in the White community, the Wallaces, own the community store and cooperate with the landowners to keep the current social structure intact. In this environment, the Logans encounter many challenges, both subtle and overt, to their independence and self-esteem.

Cassie Logan, the nine-year-old narrator, embodies the spirit of independence, the trademark of the Logan family and one of the primary thematic emphases of the novel. Although not truly rebellious, Cassie questions and challenges practices that many of the other characters accept at face value. When she travels with her grandmother to the town of Strawberry to sell milk and eggs, Cassie unflinchingly questions and criticizes the accepted practices that force her grandmother to display her goods behind the White sellers' wagons. She is equally assertive when she informs the store owner that she is next in line after he has waited on three White customers out of turn, and again when she refuses to accept the worn-out school books that have been issued eleven times to White students before being offered to students at the all-Black school.

Cassie is consistently assertive and logical as she proves in her well-planned retaliation against Lillian Jean Simms, a twelve-year-old White girl who delights in humiliating Cassie. Lillian Jean directs Cassie to call her "Miss" and to carry her school books from the bus stop to her home. Even while following Lillian Jean's orders, Cassie methodically plots her revenge. She listens to Lillian Jean's secrets during this period of service, ultimately threatening to reveal them in order to keep Lillian Jean from reporting the beating Cassie gives her. Cassie's independence is symbolic of the family's emphasis on freedom from the prevailing sharecropper system, although, in her retaliation against Lillian Jean, she compromises family values somewhat by defending fairness at the expense of peace.

Mary Logan, Cassie's resourceful and strong mother, teaches seventh grade at Great Faith Secondary School, manages the family during her husband's frequent absences, and works cooperatively with Big Ma, her mother-in-law, to keep the family intact. She demands acceptable, courteous behavior from her children, supporting the school's punishment of Cassie and Little Man, her youngest son, for refusing to accept the worn-out schoolbooks. She is, however, sufficiently disturbed by the affront that prompted her children's action that she refuses to condemn them categorically for their behavior.

Politically committed to the cause of dignity for Blacks, Mary helps to organize and implement the boycott of the Wallace store after the Wallaces participate in the lynching of Black men. False reports of Mary's incompetence as a teacher, along with her determination to teach her students all the historical facts—even the ones excluded from the old textbooks—contribute to her dismissal from her job, a loss she accepts stoically. Her most painful task is attempting to make Cassie see that certain racial injustices have to be endured while at the same time assuring her daughter that Blacks are as good as Whites.

David Logan, Cassie's father, demonstrates intense pride in the family property and considers it his greatest obligation to maintain this land for his children's sake. He is gentle and kind to his wife and children, and displays respect and love for his mother. Particularly protective of his family, he attempts to ensure their safety by bringing an unemployed rail layer, Mr. Morrison, to live at the farm while he is away. He makes no effort to perpetuate racial strife but does caution his son against forming close relations with a White youngster, hoping to shield his son from potential hurt. Toward Cassie, he exhibits extreme patience, urging her to control her temper but also encouraging her to identify and, fight for the values she cherishes. He is understanding of others' circumstances and does not condemn a sharecropping neighbor for withdrawing from the boycott of the Wallace store for fear of retribution.

David's mild temperament contrasts sharply with that of his brother Hammer, who lives in the North and exhibits an impatience with the status of race relations in the South that causes his family considerable anxiety when he visits them in Mississippi. Hammer, however, is equally devoted to the cause of land ownership and sells his fancy car when the banks, in an act designed to punish the Logans for their participation in the boycott, call in the mortgage. The brothers are emboldened by the strength and determination of Big Ma, who provides support for her sons and inspiration and information for Cassie. She ensures her sons' legal entitlement to the Logan land by carefully supervising the transfer of ownership.

Cassie's brothers, Stacey, Christopher- John, and Little Man, share a genuine commitment to the family. Stacey displays commendable responsibility in protecting the rest of the family while his father is away. Loyal to his friends, he remains supportive of his irritating friend T.J., even when he does not approve of T.J.'s actions. Christopher- John is less rigid and intense than either of his brothers or Cassie, exhibiting sensitivity for others and attempting to please as many people as possible. He refuses to dwell on unpleasant matters or controversies. Little Man has a penchant for cleanliness and neatness, and reacts vigorously to humiliation of any nature.

T. J. Avery, the son of a Black sharecropper, is capricious and unreliable. Although he possesses some positive character traits, he is cunning and deceitful, thriving on the discomfiture of those around him. Angered by a second falling grade in Mary Logan's class, he reports to the White community that her teaching is ineffective and that she is responsible for the boycott of the Wallace store. At times he is repentant, but his character remains flawed. His ambiguous behavior during racial crises estranges him from both Blacks and Whites. T.J. demonstrates his weakness by participating with the Simmses in an attempted robbery. Overall, T.J. is the antithesis of the book's main themes, lacking integrity, pride, independence, and group loyalty.

Jeremy Simms and attorney Wade Jamison contrast sharply with the oppressive White characters in the novel. Jeremy, the older brother of Cassie's nemesis, Lillian Jean Simms, exhibits understanding toward the Logan youngsters, often opting to walk with them and awkwardly bringing Christmas gifts to their home. Essentially conciliatory, he often apprises the Logans of the prevailing views and attitudes of the Whites. His refreshing sensitivity and kindness enhance the humanitarian aspect of the novel. Equally exemplary is Wade Jamison, an attorney from whose family the Logans obtained their land. He is supportive of the Logans' efforts to retain their property, offering legal advice and drawing up the papers that transfer the ownership from Big Ma to her two sons. He demonstrates tremendous support in the boycott of the Wallaces' store and volunteers to help obtain credit in Vicksburg for the boycotting sharecroppers. His fairness and honesty are consistent with the positive themes Taylor emphasizes.

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