Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry – Mildred D. Taylor

When I was in high school, the school librarian, Mr. Boucher, told me to read The Three Musketeers (he also told me to read Fahrenheit 451, thank you Mr. Boucher).  I loved it.  Alexandre Dumas (père) also wrote Twenty Years After (a continuation of the adventures of the three and their friend, D’Artagnan), and The Count of Monte Cristo (which I didn’t like as much).  But it wasn’t until I read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, that I realized that Monsieur Dumas, in addition to being one of the great French writers, was a black man.  Wikipedia refers to him as “of mixed race” (his grandfather was a French nobleman and his grandmother was a slave).  In Roll of Thunder, Papa gives Cassie a copy of The Three Musketeers, and tells his daughter that Mr. Dumas is a black author.

There has been a movement, in the last few years, to have a separate school in Toronto that is “black focused”, with all sorts of debate around the issue.  Not being a Torontonian, I didn’t pay too much attention to the issue.  On reflection, it occurs to me that if a well-educated and well-read visible minority can get all the way into her mid-30s without knowing that Alexandre Dumas was black…well, that really says something about mainstream schools and their French classes.  I have so many questions and ideas just from this one piece of information: who were (if any) the equivalent North American authors?  Why did Alexandre Dumas write about soldiers and war and glory?  Would he have had an equivalent education and the same opportunities as a black man in the United States?

In Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Cassie and her family are growing up in the U.S. south just after World War I.  Her mother is a schoolteacher, her father is a railman, and together the family farms cotton.  When she is given this book – written by a black man! – it’s like pride and a thunderclap all put together.  Don’t get me wrong – the significance of the book in the greater scheme of the story is, well, nonexistent.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Ms. Taylor just slipped that fact in so that ignorant people like me would know that one of the greatest French writers of his period was black, and that while his writings have now become such classics that they cannot be found for love or money in any public library (don’t get me started on this), children like Cassie were being effectively denied schooling long after Monsieur Dumas became famous.

So is this book worth reading?  Let’s just say that when one little fact buried in a book can generate so much reflection, just imagine how much is packed into the rest of the book.

In essence, this book is about a pack of siblings, growing up, going to school, making friends, getting into mischief, but all complicated by the fact that they are black landowners in a countryside populated with white landowners, black sharecroppers, simmering with (mostly) fear and hate.  Cassie is something of an innocent at the start of the book.  She is spunky and smart and free spirited.  But she learns some tough lessons about what it means to be black in a world made for others; what it means to be not-as-equal or not-even-close-to-equal in the eyes of society; how easily things slip beyond your control; how it is impossible to go back to being carefree once Things Go Wrong.  Sound heavy?  Well, yes.  Racism sucks.

A book that describes a child’s experience of racism and coming-of-age has the potential to be overly sentimental or, at worst, whiny and preachy.  Ms. Taylor’s writing does neither of these things.  In the epilogue to his holocaust memoir, If This is a Man, Primo Levi tells readers that he deliberately wanted to be descriptive and clinical – it’s not a story, it really happened.  Ms. Taylor is not quite clinical – but her descriptiveness and deliberateness reminded me of Levi’s statement.  She’s not fishing for sympathy, she’s just telling it like it was (or, some would say, is) for girls like Cassie, and letting readers decide how we feel about it.  How do I feel?  I feel like this book should be read, that’s how I feel.

Mature themes: racism, night riders, lynchings.  Kids who read this will have some tough questions that may not have answers.

Reading ages: a mature 10, and probably up to 13 or so.  I still thought it was good, but I’m not sure how it would sit with a 16+, as it is simply written and teens hate to be babied.

Rating: A