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1. Compare and contrast the Logan children’s personalities and describe the similarities and differences of Cassie and Stacey’s coming of age
While Roll of Thunder is primarily the coming-of-age story of Cassie Logan, she and her brothers all develop a more mature understanding of race relations in the South during the year described. From the beginning of the novel, Cassie and Little Man are presented as the Logan children most open about their feelings. In contrast, Stacey is from the outset portrayed as more restrained, formulating plans to carry out rather than reacting in the heat of the moment. From their first day of school through the spring revival, the Logan children learn tough lessons about the world around them, each expressing their new-found knowledge in different ways.
Little Man is outraged upon seeing the word “nigra” printed in his first school book, and is most frequently depicted trying to keep clean. As the youngest sibling, he is presented as innocent and worthy of protection from the harsh realities that surround him, a job his older siblings welcome. Christopher-John is a quieter character, who must be encouraged to follow along on the children’s nighttime explorations. He cheerfully goes along, but it is Cassie and Stacey who lead their peers in rebellion.
Cassie is still learning to control her temper, which appears frequently, including when she resists apologizing to “Miss” Lillian Jean Simms. She wreaks her revenge by feigning friendship and earning the white girl’s trust solely to abuse it and regain a sense of her own power. Papa has explained Cassie must choose her battles and that just as he has decided not to pursue Charlie Simms in this particular instance, she, too, must learn when to let things go. Stacey shares his sister’s intense frustrations, but also shows the wisdom of restraint. He masterminds the children’s revenge on the school bus that dirties them by insisting on patience and then returning to the scene to dig the ditch that destroys the offending vehicle. Over the course of the novel, he shows even greater self-discipline, a widening chasm from his sister who is eager to see justice swiftly done. Whether due to her age or gender, or both, Cassie has not accompanied her father on the railroad as Stacey has, and certain elements of his greater worldliness are directly attributable to this difference in exposure. 2. What is the importance of the novel’s title?
“Roll of thunder, hear my cry,” is a line from a spiritual sung by slaves, which appears in a song hummed by Mr. Morrison at the beginning of chapter 11. Its lines include reference to a white man coming whip in hand “but I ain’t gonna let him turn me ‘round,” a clear allusion to the resistance of the Logan family to the racial oppression still evident in the 1930s. Mama, Papa and Big Ma have all imparted their opinions about the legacy of slavery to the Logan children, and shared their sense of injustice at the way things are. They encourage the next generation not to accept the status quo, but to carefully identify their means of resistance to an unjust world order. Rather than depending on the heavens to save them from the anger and fear exhibited by their white neighbors, the Logans organize a boycott of the Wallace store and encourage their black friends to also shop in Vicksburg. But their efforts are met with violence, and the storm metaphor surfaces multiple times in the novel to illustrate the similarities between race relations and weather patterns. Though it is somewhat unpredictable which incident will set off a storm of hate, there is no doubt that something big is brewing throughout the novel, until the crescendo of the fire lit by Papa in an attempt to save his land and family. While it a major accomplishment that, for the first time, blacks and whites are linked in their efforts to fight the blaze, it is not enough that they are united at last against a common enemy threatening life and property. To quell the leaping flames it is a natural rain that is needed. The distant roar of thunder that opens and closes the penultimate chapter lends a sense of foreboding to the storm that has long been brewing. Mama and Big Ma fight the blaze with buckets of water, but it takes a torrential downpour of larger-than-life proportions to spare three-quarters of the Logans’ cotton and to reinforce the fact that all human beings in the story depend on nature. 3. How is friendship explored in this novel?
Besides being blood relatives, the members of the Logan family are bound by a deep respect for one another and a shared value and love for the land. Few of their neighbors grasp this tie, or exhibit it in their own families. The Averys are portrayed as poor and ignorant sharecroppers, and the Simmses as similarly challenged to demonstrate by example to their children how to treat their fellow human beings. Their peers look up to the Logans and seek their acceptance, but none earn their full respect and friendship. T.J. wants nothing more than to be listened to and respected, and will do or say anything to be the center of attention. His lack of respect for the moral order disgusts Cassie and her brothers, who shun him. Stacey understands and sympathizes with T.J. but denies him the prize of his friendship.
Jeremy Simms also desperately craves Stacey’s approval, and from the start attempts to distinguish himself from his family and white peers, extending himself time and again. Although he walks as far as he can along the way to school with the Logans, his gestures are not encouraged or welcomed, through no fault of his own, but rather due to the larger racial forces in operation in full force in the still segregated South. The clear message is that friendship is predicated on racial equality, and until that is developed, true friendship between blacks and whites is as much a dream as Jeremy’s fantasy that he can see the Logan farm from his tree house.
Perhaps the most compelling example of friendship in the novel is that between David Logan and Mr. Morrison, the man he brings home from the railroad to protect his family. Mr. Morrison appreciates the generosity of food, shelter and company, and repays the Logans by shielding their children from further attack, keeping watch in the night with a shotgun by his side. He is honest in explaining how he lost his job, for fighting with white men, and is rewarded for this quality which the Logans greatly value.
Although friendship is an important theme throughout Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, it is mostly the bonds of family that remain unquestioned and intact by the novel’s end. Family loyalty, to each other and to their shared land, is prized above all else.
4. What is the symbolic value of the land inRoll of Thunder, Hear My Cry?
As Big Ma repeats frequently in this novel, the Logans cherish their land and will protect it at any price. Her refrain is echoed by her sons, David and Hammer, the only living men in the family, and David’s wife Mary who shares in working and appreciating it. As a schoolteacher, Mary knows well that her husband’s family struggled to pay for the 400 acres on which they reside, not only tilling the soil and cultivating the cotton crop yearly, but also warding off those who wish to reclaim it for white ownership. Slavery is a fresh wound in the family’s collective memory, the horrors of which are most often recounted by Big Ma, whose forebears were not born free.
Because they own their own land, the Logans have an important place in the black community. While their neighbors share-crop on white-owned land and must borrow from the Grangers to buy their supplies, the Logans are self-sufficient and able to provide for themselves, even demonstrating their independence by boycotting the racist Wallace store in favor of shopping twenty-two miles away in Vicksburg.
Unlike the Logans, who respect the land for both the gifts it gives in sustaining them and for its symbolic value in making them more equal to the white landowners, Harlan Granger wants to buy back their 400 acres to demonstrate the superiority of the white race. He is living in the past and wishes to return to the era of slaves and masters, which he believes the “right” order of things. Of the white adults, only Mr. Jamison questions this belief, and instead upholds the legal right of the Logans to their land.
Land is portrayed as the central concern of the elder Logans, who have learned through the generations before them that the independence it enables is key to success in this country. Besides the economic benefits of working it instead of another’s acres, the Logan land is responsible for the closeness of the family. They share important memories in its trees and fields and depend upon it to create the same respect in the next generation of Logans.
5. How is a sense of hope conveyed throughout the novel?
Despite the ugliness of racism and violence permeating the novel, its main characters share a sense of hope that they will yet emerge triumphant. While the forces of hate run deep and the white families still teach their children anger and fear of difference, the Logans encourage Cassie and her three brothers to develop a sense of respect for themselves before they expect others to treat them with respect. Big Ma, as the oldest character in the novel, has seen many decades of similar mistreatment of her friends and neighbors, yet is the one to most often tell the youngest character, Little Man, that the sun will shine again. The most appealing characters in this book are youthful and optimistic, with even Cassie’s parents resorting to creative means to see justice done in the community. They persuade their neighbors to band together and shop in Vicksburg rather than contribute to the Wallaces’ and Grangers’ meager profit at their own expense. Clearly there are problems enveloping them all much bigger than anyone can solve, but David and Mary Logan insist on the importance of doing their part and trying to create another way.
By being told in the first-person by a nine-year-old losing her sense of naivete and opening her eyes to the racial realities around her, this novel is by nature hopeful. As Cassie grows and changes, thinking before she speaks or acts and beginning to help her younger brothers do the same, her observations deepen and she becomes a stronger agent of change in her community. Instead of the child she was in the opening chapter, joining her brother in rejecting the dirty school books out of a sense of righteous indignation, by the novel’s close she has developed into a more worldly young adult, still somewhat in her older brother’s shadow but peering out of the woods in which she’d been hiding with a far more adult pair of eyes than she possessed at the start of the school year. Although most of this learning took place outside the schoolhouse, Cassie nevertheless emerges an educated and independent person, likely to follow in her parents’ footsteps in seeking all means possible to do what she must in paving the way towards racial equality for future generations.
What is the effect created by the author telling this story from the perspective of a child? Does it make the racial incidents seem more or less sinister?
Analyze the non-corrupt white characters like Jeremy Simms. Can you identify any others? What seems to motivate them? Are they better or worse off than the black characters?
Analyze the effect of the three different time periods that have to do with this novel on the text. Discuss how slavery times (before the book was set), Jim Crow laws (during when the book was set), and the Black Power movement (after the book was set, when Mildred Taylor was writing it) have influenced the text. Where do you find examples of each?
Discuss the role of nature in this novel. Does it work in opposition to human interests?
Analyze Big Mama as the voice of history. What sorts of stories does she tell, and what type of effect does she hope that these stories will have on her grandchildren's lives?
Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry is as much a coming of age story for Stacey as it is for Cassie. What realities must Stacey face in this novel and what positive or negative qualities does he begin to demonstrate?
Describe the way that Christmas is portrayed in this novel. Does it introduce new themes relating to family life or enlarge on old ones?
Analyze the character of TJ. Does the author intend him to represent a typical black young man? What is his tragic flaw?
Compare the friendship that Stacey has with TJ to the friendship that he has with Jeremy Simms. To whom does he show more loyalty? Why?
When Papa sets fire to his own cotton at the end of the novel, is he acting in a defeated or a self-controlled manner? Is this a moment of triumph or of despair? Of optimism or pessimism?