Task: Read a children’s classic published before 1980.
This is such a damned good book, and it was every bit as gripping this time around as it was the last time I read it a quarter of a century or so ago.
I’m usually bothered by nostalgia when it comes to libraries (just stick with this train of thought for a minute). I work in a busy public library, and I know the value of what I do. However, I’m not sure that people with fond library memories who don’t actually use the library today quite get what my actual profession entails.
Don’t get me wrong, any children’s librarian worth his or her salt should give a child an impression that our days are spent being kindly and putting exactly the right book in young people’s hands at exactly the right moment. And we do that, for all ages. It’s one of most of my colleagues’ favorite types of library interaction. Buuuuuut there’s more to it. A LOT more to it.
First of all, we’re not all children’s librarians. Over on the adult side, the job involves anything from providing community tech support to helping schedule visitations with incarcerated family members to genealogy research to legal and medical self-help and research to handling mental health and substance abuse issues professionally and compassionately. The truth is, most of us love books as much as you’d expect, but at its heart this is an information profession, and our razor sharp book recommendation game is only one blade in the Swiss army knife of our skill set.
Still, there’s a tendency for comparatively well-off people of my generation to wax nostalgic about their childhood public libraries, which is fine, up until the idea of a public library in the public mind becomes more fashionably retro than essential to the health of a community.
We provide a broad community service that’s inclusive of people who may not have wifi at home, or Amazon prime accounts, or Netflix logins, or much practice vetting Google search results, or any of the other things people jokingly insert into the “Who uses libraries any more? Haven’t you heard of _____?” line.
In other words, just because you haven’t needed library services since your childhood story time hour doesn’t mean that other people don’t.
I’m saying all of this because Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is one of those books that ignites my own library nostalgia, and I want to be clear that my own charmingly dusty memories of my late twentieth century childhood doesn’t necessarily equate to a modern public library.
I read this book one summer because I saw it on the shelf and was intrigued by its absolutely killer title. It was this edition, except it had that laminate reinforced library binding that gave it a smooth, solid feel, almost like a polished stone, that was lovely to hold and tap on. The little girl on the front looked tough and confident and about my age, and she looked like she was in the middle of her summer too. This was more than enough reason for me to pull it off the shelf and trot over to the checkout desk to present my library card with its little metal strip that made it sturdy and official and have my book’s due date card methodically stamped by the woman behind the desk.
It’s worth noting that I came across this book about a black family struggling to maintain ownership of their hard-won land as well as their dignity and that of their neighbors and friends in 1930s Alabama on the library shelves in Harrison, Arkansas (see here for details). This is a huge testament to the power of simple availability when it comes to introducing kids to people and lived experience that don’t match the worlds they’re growing up in.
The Logan family were a wonderful discovery for me (I defy you to find a kinder, smarter, more determined bunch in all of American kid lit), and its honest depiction of racism was powerful too. This wasn’t the sort of racial parable I was more familiar with, in which a white character and / or cast learns a powerful lesson from the solitary black character, who’s almost never a POV entity. The Logans don’t just have agency; they’ve fought tooth and nail for it, and they actively seek to be sure everyone else has it as well. It’s their experience, not the white experience, that’s placed front and center.
Cassie Logan is right up there with Scout Finch (and yeah, there’s a lot more to be said about that comparison), Kit Tyler, Anne Shirley and Meg Murray – she’s determined, impulsive, and entirely unafraid to assert herself and her rights. Cassie’s brass makes her the kind of character you love forever and secretly always wish you could be more like. But the scenes where her family frantically tries to tamp it down in order to keep her safe are heartbreaking. At one point her grandmother forces her to apologize to a white girl when both the grandmother and Cassie know that Cassie hasn’t done anything wrong in order to deescalate a situation that’s starting to turn violent.
This particular scene is set nearly 100 years in the past, but this article is from 2016.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry doesn’t give any easy answers. Cassie’s parents attempt to stand up to the Wallaces, who own the local store and have committed a horrific act of violence against a black family, by convincing their sharecropper neighbors to shop somewhere else. They do ultimately manage to prevent further violence, but only through a painful sacrifice that gives the book one of the saddest, most complicated endings I’ve read in this age bracket. Cassie and her brothers are discouraged from making friends with white kids. Structural racism pervades the entire social fabric of their community, and the book doesn’t slap an easy happy ending on that.
For all its difficult, complicated context, though, it’s also so full of love and humor (and a few deeply satisfying wins). The characters make you forget they’re fictional, and it was just as engrossing for me at thirty-five as it was at ten. I’m glad I revisited it, though I wish I felt like we’d made more progress since it was written and since I first read it.