Friday, April 11, 2008

Mildred D. Taylor

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
by Mildred D. Taylor
Recommended Age: 10+

This sequel to Song of the Trees won the 1977 John Newbery Medal. Set in Mississippi in the 1930's, it is a gentle yet moving depiction of one black family's struggle to live in peace, dignity, and freedom - on their own land - in an era when sharecroppers were kept in such fear and poverty by white landowners that they were scarcely better than slaves.

Fourth-grader Cassie Logan tells the story of a year in her life: a year when hoodlums burnt three black men alive on suspicion of looking crossways at a white woman; a year when a greedy white landowner sets his sights on the Logan family's land; a year when an attempt to boycott a store run by bad people leads to every kind of threat, financial chicanery, and attempts of physical violence.

In that year, Cassie's older brother Stacey makes strides toward manhood, the most difficult ones having to do with his troubled friend T. J. In that year, Mama and Big Ma worry themselves to the bone that Papa (who has to work for the railroad to make ends meet) and Uncle Hammer (who works up north) will do something proud and foolish that could get them killed. In that year, Cassie suffers a terrible humiliation and exacts a bittersweet revenge; a huge, quiet stranger comes to stay on their farm; and stormclouds of tragedy gather with relentless suspense, climaxing in a night of violence, terror, and flames that will change Cassie's world for keeps.

This story could have been told in an angry and shrill tone, and it wouldn't have been half as powerful. Instead, its quiet, crystal-clear language, its modest imitation of Southern U.S. speech patterns, and its steady but unforced march toward its remarkable conclusion, give it a staggering impact. Whether you are white, black, or purple with yellow spots, you should read this book to understand a shameful system from which our country only recently emerged, and for which it has yet to fully atone. Read it to enjoy a gripping story, but also read it to learn the lessons Cassie's family teaches her. I quote, in brief:
"White is something just like black is something. Everybody born on this earth is something and nobody, no matter what color, is better than anybody else."
And, a little later on:
"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... And I pray to God you'll make the best of yours."
Song of the Trees
by Mildred D. Taylor
Recommended Age: 10+

This “prequel” to Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is quite a short book. In fact it goes by almost startlingly, bewilderingly fast. But at the same time, it is filled with passages of timeless poetry. Almost like a tragic fairy tale, it fills in an important gap in the story of the Logan family, set in the backdrop of Depression-era Mississippi. And like the longer and greater book it is connected to, Song of the Trees depicts moments of lightheartedness, moments of fear and despair, and moments of fierce hope in quick succession, without ever becoming preachy or inflammatory.

Nevertheless, there is a great sorrow, yes, and even something to be very angry and ashamed about, behind the events in this story. In fact, there are several sorrows—the sorrow of hardship as a poor family scrapes to get by and stay together on their own land; the sorrow of racism, with its power for division and injustice in the American South; and the sorrow of the magnificent old forests, which were cleared away in a very disrespectful and mercenary way, all combined together.

Together these sorrows could have become a novel of great dramatic power. But what Mrs. Taylor has given us, according to her own notes on the book, is closer to reality. It is merely a lyrical description of a brief moment of loss, adapted from the true stories told by Mrs. Taylor’s father. I think this honesty and directness of expression makes the point far better than an overblown novel would have done. But you can read it quickly enough to see for yourself!

EDIT: Other award-winning books by Mildred Taylor include Let the Circle Be Unbroken, The Friendship, The Gold Cadillac, The Road to Memphis, Mississippi Bridge, The Well: David's Story, and The Land.

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