Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is one of those very famous kids’ books (it won the Newbery Medal in 1977) that I somehow never read as a child: I’m curious as to how it would have affected me, and I wish I had been exposed to more diverse books when I was younger, but, well, better late than never.

This novel, which is set in Mississippi in the early 1930s, has a whole lot going on in it. It’s narrated by 9-year-old Cassie Logan, who’s a pretty great character: she’s smart and no-nonsense, and good at standing up for the people she cares about, and also for herself. (I felt like we got a great introduction to Cassie early in the book, when it’s the first day of school and the teacher wants the class to reply to her in unison, and Cassie doesn’t – “I never did approve of group responses,” Cassie narrates, which cracked me up because I totally relate.) Cassie and her family are something of an oddity in their community because they own their own land, whereas most of the other African-American families in the area are sharecroppers. But money is tight, and the income from the cotton the Logans grow and Cassie’s mom’s job as a teacher isn’t enough: Cassie’s dad has had to take a job on the railroad, which means he’s away from home a lot, leaving Cassie and her three brothers with their mom and grandma. Which is fine, until it’s not: a violent attack on three black men by some white men (because one of the black men has been accused of making a pass at a white woman) makes everyone uneasy, and a big part of the book has to do with how Cassie’s family responds to that violence, and to the threat of more. But that’s not all that Cassie is dealing with: another main thread in the book is the way that Cassie finds herself learning about racism’s daily manifestations, the ways in which she and her family aren’t treated equally or fairly or nicely by their white neighbors: the way her grandmother has to put her wagon at the back of the field when she goes to sell eggs at the market; the way a shopkeeper stops helping her family to help white customers; the way a white girl and her father respond when Cassie accidentally bumps into the girl on the sidewalk. Cassie starts to see the compromises the adults in her life make in the name of safety and survival, and starts to figure out what compromises she will or won’t make for herself.

I feel like historical fiction can be very hard to do well, maybe especially when it’s historical fiction for kids—sometimes the amount of explaining that needs to be done about the circumstances of a different place/time to make events make sense to a modern reader can make things feel a bit slow or didactic, and there were a few moments like that in this book (I’m thinking especially of a passage where a sharecropping neighbor is explaining his specific financial difficulties to Cassie’s mom). Overall, though, I found myself drawn into Cassie’s story/her family’s story as the book progressed; near the end, there was totally a scene that made me teary-eyed on the subway.

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