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Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

by Mildred D. Taylor

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What are some examples of figurative language in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry?

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There are many examples of figurative language in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, including dialectical idioms, similes, metaphors, personification, vivid sensory imagery, onomatopoeia, and alliteration. For example, Cassie describes car taillights as being "like distant embers."

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Mildred D. Taylor's novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is filled with figurative language that enhances readers' experience of the story and helps them see the events and characters in creative and interesting ways. Let's look at a few examples.

The first thing we notice with regard to figurative language is the dialectical idioms. Taylor gives us a glimpse of the characters' dialect, or normal way of speaking, and that includes figurative language. Cassie, for instance, tells her younger brother that if he makes them late for school, “Mama's gonna wear you out.” She means, of course, that their mother will spank him, but she uses a figurative expression, an idiom, common to the children's dialect. She does so again a little later in the conversation when she tells her brother, “I betcha Mama's gonna 'clean' you, you keep it up.” Again, she is referring to a punishment but using the ironic word “clean” to express it in response to her brother's declaration that he means to keep clean on the first day of school.

The story is also filled with similes and metaphors that paint vivid sensory portraits. The dust lands on Cassie's shoes “like gritty red snow.” The bus sinks into the ditch “like a lopsided billy goat on its knees.” Cars' taillights are “like distant red embers.” These are all similes (comparisons using the words “like” or “as”). Big Ma, Cassie says, has “eagle eyes.” She can see far and knows exactly what her grandchildren are doing. Little Man watches the bus “saucer-eyed.” He eyes are wide and staring. These are examples of metaphors (comparisons that do not use introductory words).

Personification (the attribute of human traits to non-human things) is also common in the novel. When the rain hits the dust, the latter seems “to be rejoicing in its own resiliency and laughing at the heavy drops thudding against it,” but then it is “forced to surrender.” The rain wins the battle. The sun, too, is involved in a fight, as it “attempted to penetrate the storm clouds” but then gives up, “slinking meekly behind the blackening clouds.”

Taylor includes plenty of imagery with vivid sensory details that allow readers to enter into the story more deeply. The dust, the narrator explains,

churned into a fine red mud that oozed between our toes and slopped against our ankles as we marched miserably to and from school.

Cassie describes her grandmother, Big Ma, as “tall and strongly built. Her clear, smooth skin was the color of a pecan shell.”

Finally, the author uses linguistic features like onomatopoeia (words that imitate sounds) and alliteration (words with the same initial sounds) to add further interest. The hickory fire crackles; the rain patters or goes tat-tat on the roof; and an owl hoots. These are all examples of onomatopoeia. Alliteration occurs in “Stacey stood swaying on the Strawberry road” and “Cassie kept consoling Claude.”

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There are many examples of figurative language in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Idioms are a type of figurative language and are expressions that are not meant to be taken literally. Some examples include "biting the hand that feeds you" (ch. 1), "quiet as a church mouse" (ch. 4), "back on the right track" and "the boys gotten out of hand" (ch. 9), and "walking on cat's feet" (ch. 11). None of these phrases can be taken literally.

Alliteration is when the same beginning sound is found in several consecutive words or phrases. Some examples are "silently slid" (ch. 3), "down deflated" (ch. 10), and "Mr. Morrison" and "baked brown" (ch. 10).

Imagery is when the author uses descriptive words to help create a picture in the reader's mind. One's imagination is engaged. Examples include the following: "In a black pan set on a high wire rack, peanuts roasted over the hickory fire as the waning light of day swiftly deepened into a fine velvet night speckled with white forerunners of a coming snow" (ch. 7); "crowded into the the kitchen with the boys and me, smelling the delicious aromas" (ch. 7); and "our backs propped against an old hickory or pine or walnut, our feet dangling lazily in the cool water" (ch. 10).

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In Chapter Five, as Cassie, Big Ma, Stacey, and TJ head for the market in Strawberry, it is three-thirty in the morning, and TJ is initially subdued—"but by dawn, when the December sun was creeping warily upward" he is "chattering like a cockatoo."

Wariness is a behavior attributable to people (or animals), not the sun, so this description is personification. The comparison of TJ to a bird is a simile.

In Chapter Six, Uncle Hammer speeds off to confront Mr. Simms about manhandling Cassie as "the car zoomed angrily down the drive"; this is another use of personification since anger is a human emotion that a car can't possess.

Later in Chapter Six, as Cassie and Mama prepare to go to church, the author uses a simile to describe Mama's hair; "it fanned her head like an enormous black halo" and Cassie observes that Mama "always smelled of sunshine and soap." While soap does have a fragrance, smelling of "sunshine" is a figurative description.

In Chapter Seven, after Mr. Morrison tells frightening stories about Civil War raids, including one in which he lost his family, Cassie has an uneasy night disturbed by "visions of night riders and fire mixed in a caldron (sic) of fear." The cauldron of fear is figurative. 

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An example of figurative language in the first chapter of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is "Before us the narrow, sun-splotched road wound like a lazy red serpent" (page numbers vary by edition). The author is comparing the winding, muddy road to a serpent in a simile (a comparison that uses "like" or "as"). Another example of figurative language is the description of L.T. Morrison in Chapter Two: "The man was a human tree in height, towering high above Papa's six feet two inches" (page numbers vary by edition). Using a metaphor, a comparison that does not use "like" or "as," the author compares Mr. Morrison  to a tree. In Chapter Three, the author uses an example of personification, another form of figurative language: "At first the rain had merely splotched the dust, which seemed to be rejoicing in its own resiliency and laughing at the heavy drops thudding against it" (page numbers vary by edition). In this example, the dust has human qualities, as it seems to be happily resisting the rain. Personification involves giving human qualities or emotions to inanimate objects--in this case, dust. 

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