The Legacy of Mildred Taylor
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is a “must read.” Truthfully, at Redeemed Reader, we resist telling you any book save for the Bible is a must read. But Roll of Thunder comes mighty close.
Mildred Taylor earned a Newbery Medal for Roll of Thunder in 1976. The book instantly became a classroom standard and remains so to this day. It is a beautiful book about an ugly time: a Black family’s experience in 1930s Mississippi.
Mildred Taylor went on to write more about the Logan family in a series of novels that spans several age ranges (list below). The stories are based on Taylor’s own family’s stories–beginning with the ones her father told her. Interestingly, the ones I’ve read all feature a bus scene of some prominence; knowing this, the epilogue in the final novel is the perfect ending.
Taylor also manages to write fiction that addresses racism head on, but in a manner that doesn’t villify all white people or praise all Black people. No, the characters in her stories are all free agents. The broader white culture is not a friendly one to the Logans, but it serves to magnify particular characters’ small-mindedness even as it serves to magnify other characters’ bravery. Likewise, while the African American community is generally the victim at large, Taylor shows the impact of foolish decisions on the part of some and the wise actions on the part of others.
“Baby, we have no choice of what color we’re born or who our parents are or whether we’re rich or poor. What we do have is some choice over what we make of our lives once we’re here.”~Cassie’s mother, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
In short, keeping one’s temper, treating each person with dignity regardless of skin color, and sacrificing for those you love and respect are values that cross cultural divides.
The African American church is a prominent source of community, strength, and encouragement to the Logans and their friends and relatives. The Logans themselves regularly allude to their faith in the Lord and several scenes show them praying for guidance for the days to come. These aren’t “Christian fiction” books, but Mildred Taylor certainly gives readers a powerful picture of faith in the midst of trials.
Please note: Taylor doesn’t shy away from using language that reflects the time period, such as the “n-word,” and she includes violence as it relates to the time period.
Chapter Books by Mildred Taylor:
In general, her chapter books aren’t as strong as Taylor’s middle grades and young adult titles. Her writing doesn’t sing as brightly. They would serve well to provide additional reading for a 5th or 6th grader who has “met” Cassie in Roll of Thunder, but who doesn’t have the reading chops or general maturity to plow through the other titles quite yet. I’ve only read Song of the Trees in its entirety.
- Song of the Trees
- Mississippi Bridge
- The Friendship
- The Gold Cadillac
Middle Grade Books by Mildred Taylor:
I’ve only read Roll of Thunder in this list, but these other two are also in the general middle grades age range. The Well is shorter than Let the Circle Be Unbroken.
- Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
- The Well
- Let the Circle Be Unbroken
Young Adult Novels by Mildred Taylor:
Mildred Taylor doesn’t shy away from the hard parts, from the reality her characters would have faced in their situations. These novels show young people coming of age in a majority culture set against them. Taylor writes discreetly about some of those trials, but these are definitely books for the teen crowd, not middle grades.
- The Road to Memphis
- The Land
- All the Days Past, All the Days to Come
*Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
Cassie Logan, aged 9, is walking to school with her brothers and a friend when the white kids’ bus barrels down upon them. Forced to flee to the muddy side of the road while white kids taunt them from the bus, Cassie’s brother Stacey vows revenge. After wreaking revenge on the schoolbus, Cassie’s family settles into their 1930s Mississippi life. Work is hard, food sometimes scarce, but they own their land (instead of sharecropping). Cassie’s father must work the railroad, far away from home; her mother loses her teaching job and the family worries about making enough money to pay taxes on the precious land. Racial tension in the community is high, people get hurt, and a person’s character is put to the test. When conflict boils over between the white and Black communities, a shaky peace occurs only when the land itself is at risk.
Note: a boy gets badly injured; sensitive young readers may want to wait until 7th or 8th grade although I’ve successfully read this book with students in 5th and 6th grade.
*indicates a starred review, the best of the best
The Road to Memphis
As they did in Roll of Thunder, buses and cars play a prominent role in The Road to Memphis. Stacey has bought himself a car, a nice car. He’s sick and tired of having to stand in the back on public buses. Cassie is growing up and lovely to look at; her friend Mo sure thinks so. The combination of a Negro owning a nice car and having a lovely sister brings out the worst in some of the white community. When trouble sparks, Stacey’s friend Mo reacts. He unintentionally kills a white man and wounds several others in an altercation. The Logans’ old friend Jeremy Sims helps get Mo out of town; Stacey, Cassie, and another friend pick him up in Jackson and head to Memphis, hoping to find a train that will carry Mo North. Car trouble, vicious white rednecks at a gas station, and Pearl Harbor complicate matters. Cassie and Stacey grow up in this novel, navigating adult concerns away from home.
Note: this book includes white men making advances and rude comments to Cassie that most readers will recognize for the threat they are. She recognizes them, too, and her fear is palpable. There is also a pregnant teen and some discussion of who the father might be (the answer is revealed in the book). Violence, at least two characters’ deaths, and the general ugliness of the times place this book firmly in the teen category. Nothing overly graphic, but Taylor’s gift for graciously grappling with grit is on full display. The book is worth reading and discussing, but save it for your teens.
All the Days Past, All the Days to Come
The final novel in the Logan family saga, this is a fitting conclusion. Cassie is in her early 20s, an adult who is making her own way in the world. First she lives with Stacey and his family in Chicago, seeing Mo every now and then. When Stacey heads to California to see Uncle Hammer, Cassie tags along. In a burst of independence, she decides to stay in California on her own. Surely it’s better, racially speaking, than Chicago. And definitely better than Mississippi. Come to find out, people are people, and there are bad eggs in every community. After Cassie’s boss makes dangerous advances to her, her boyfriend rescues her. Love blossoms into marriage, but a tragic accident cuts the marriage short. Cassie must learn to make her way in this novel of early adulthood: she learns that racism is everywhere, that single women must be not be naive, and that some causes are worth fighting for.
Note: This novel is very pro-marriage, with a firm understanding that the marriage bed should be kept pure (enough to be a sub-theme of the novel). That being said, Cassie’s relationship with a man at the end of the novel is vague enough to leave the door open for a sexual relationship (in addition to their obvious romantic one). This novel is best for older teens and those in their early 20s, partly because that is Cassie’s own age and her concerns reflect it (marriage, job, etc.). Cassie and her family discuss these grown-up concerns frankly. It is a beautiful novel and worth reading/discussing.
Related Reading from Redeemed Reader:
- Recommended books related to the Civil Rights Movement: God’s Time to Make a Change
- A Book List: Black History Month Picture Books for Tweens and Teens
- A Book Review: Breakthrough (a nonfiction book set in the 1930s, the same time period as Roll of Thunder)
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Note: the link to the Roll of Thunder copy is the least expensive version available, but you can still find the beautiful copy pictured above!