“This is the best book EVER!” cried my 10-year-old, lifting Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor high in the air.
We had just finished listening to the audio version of the book, read by Lynne Thigpen. I had tried reading it aloud to my children, but being a white woman from the suburbs, I couldn’t read the southern drawl right. Thigpen does a masterful job reading the book and portraying the different characters.
The main character is Cassie, a black girl in southern Mississippi before the Civil Rights movement. Cassie lives in a protected bubble of family, church and school – the main intrusion from the white world is the big yellow school bus that pretends to run her down every morning as she walks to school with her brothers. Cassie is aware of inequalities in life – that she and her brothers don’t have a school bus to ride is just one of them. The well-worn school books handed down from the white schools is another. But she doesn’t focus on them – until the year this book is written.
Then she becomes aware that Big Ma must park her wagon at the back of the farmer’s market – because she’s black. And Cassie has to wait to receive her groceries even though she was first, because a white woman came in with her list.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is a book about inequalities – not only those I’ve mentioned, but also the struggle black sharecroppers faced in the south. Cassie’s family has land – which sets them apart from their neighbors and friends – and earns them the scrutiny and hatred of the whites in their county. The book is full of heartaches – and every time I read it I cry at the end.
Is this book emotionally difficult to read? Yes. Does it bring up painful subjects? Yes. Because of these things, many people would shy away from reading this book – especially reading it to or with children. I disagree with that choice. I choose to embrace difficult books like Roll of Thunder. Taylor does a beautiful job of balancing the horror, fear, and difficulties of the time with the love of family, strength of community, and sacrifices made to survive.
Books like Roll of Thunder help me and my children develop empathy for other people. Through Taylor’s excellent story-telling, she brings us to a place we would have never known or experienced for ourselves. And I’m thankful to her for doing just that.
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