Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it,
#ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
Late, But Right on Time
By Roxanne Fequiere
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is one of those titles that felt ubiquitous growing up in the ’90s, along with titles like The Giver, Where the Red Fern Grows, and Bridge to Terabithia—titles that you knew were important, either because of that gold foil Newbery Medal stamped on the cover or because there were several copies of it on the local library shelf. None of these titles ever showed up on my school’s reading lists, and I suppose I took their ubiquity for granted, as I never did get around to reading them as a kid.
Even now, I tend to steer clear of books, music, and movies if they’ve reached some indefinable critical mass of hype (see: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, A Star is Born). When the general public insists that one must read/listen to/see a work of art because it will move/thrill/wreck you, it gets to the point where I know that I can’t separate the work from the noise around it, and I’d rather wait to see it at some point when expectations aren’t quite so high. It’s a useless impulse, perhaps, but it’s one I’ve acted on since long before I had the words to even explain what it was that I was doing.
Of course, sometimes you forget to return to the work altogether—which is how I ended up reading Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry for the first time approximately two days ago. Much as with To Kill a Mockingbird, which I didn’t read until I was in my mid-twenties, I remarked to myself several while reading Roll of Thunder while I was glad to be experiencing the work with fresh yet critical eyes, I couldn’t help but think about how reading this as a child might have molded me.
For the uninitiated, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry takes place in rural Mississippi during The Great Depression, and focuses on a series of events that involve and affect nine-year-old Cassie Logan and her family as seen through her eyes. The Logans live on four hundred acres of land that they own, which is rare in their community for a Black family—most of their black neighbors are sharecroppers. Good fortune aside, the Logans and their peers remain under the proverbial thumb of local white folks in more ways than one, and any attempt at self-determination comes with threat of violence, arson, lost wages, imprisonment, bankruptcy, or death.
This constant threat is described in unflinching detail, which is a through line that connects most of the books about black life that I remember reading by black authors. To be clear, anyone who writes literature for children tackling tough topics must carefully consider how exactly to approach them, but when I think back on the harsh lessons I learned about black history through fiction, I can almost feel the insistence vibrating off the pages penned by black authors. It’s an electric anxiety that I’ve also experienced in person, when my parents have sat me down as a child to deliver harsh doses of reality. To grow up Black in America is to have one’s childhood innocence chipped away from the outside in while watching others shed theirs relatively painlessly. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is a painful portrait of that process as experienced by Cassie.
What makes Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry so much more than a clarion call to Black children to learn what’s worth fighting and do so in spite of threat, however, is its equally detailed depiction of what it’s like to simply be a kid: the trivial infighting between siblings, the sometimes illogical ways in which childhood friendship can vary from day to day, the hushed rituals of trying to glean forbidden information from the adult world. I appreciated Cassie’s feisty determination and fearlessness, but I deeply identified with Christopher-John, who at any given moment would prefer to travel in the opposite direction of any trouble that lies ahead, but also doesn’t want to be left out if everyone else is going on an adventure.
It takes all kinds to make a world, and it’s comforting to young readers to see themselves reflected in the books we read. Stoic freedom fighters are an ideal worth aspiring to, but for the moments when children are scared, or petulant, or enraged, it’s priceless to see that on the page. In fact, this adult reader genuinely appreciates it, too.