Although the narrator and main character, Cassie, is nine, the book is written at a fifth- to sixth-grade reading level. That, and the subject matter, makes the book more appropriate for middle school, and perhaps some advanced fourth- and fifth-graders.
Taylor introduces the complexities of race relations, even between children. She portrays African-American characters who recognize discrimination and fight it with dignity where they can. In her 1977 acceptance speech, Taylor said, “I had a driving compulsion to paint a truer picture of Black people…I wanted to show a Black family united in love and pride, of which the reader would like to be a part.”
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is actually part of a historical fiction series written about the Logan family, which is modeled on Taylor’s own family, from her great-grandfather’s purchase of land in Mississippi in the 1880s to their move to Ohio in 1943 when Taylor was three months old. It has an interesting history. In the Horn Book Magazine article, “How the Little House Gave Ground: The Beginnings of Multiculturalism in a New, Black Children's Literature” (Nov/Dec2002, Vol. 78, Issue 6), Barbara Bader writes:
Mildred Taylor had tried to write parts of her family history...before she heard about the Council on Interracial Books contest in 1973. She had tried to tell the story that became Song of the Trees from the perspective of her father, the original of the boy Stacey, but she had trouble speaking in a boy's voice. Then, with four days to go before the contest deadline, she made his sister Cassie the narrator....
...Heading home to California after the award ceremony in New York, with a publishing contract for Song of the Trees to boot, Taylor stopped off in Toledo to visit her family and, around the dinner table, heard her father and uncle tell the story of the black boy who broke into a store, and how he was saved from lynching, that provides the climax to Roll of Thunder. Hear My Cry. Taylor didn't think of the book as a story for children, she says, but rather as an adult novel along the lines of To Kill a Mockingbird. No, editor Phyllis Fogelman told her, it would be "more recognized" as a children's book. In the event, those words rank as a major understatement: Roll of Thunder took almost every available prize including the erratic Newbery, which assures a book of maximum attention and puts the rare, very fine winner over the top.
Although it was the second book written, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry falls in the middle of the series chronologically. I’m eager to read the other books: prequels The Land (about main character Cassie’s grandfather), The Well (about her father), and Song of the Trees (its plot is referred to in Roll of Thunder), and sequels Let the Circle Be Unbroken and The Road to Memphis. Two other books, Mississippi Bridge and The Friendship, are set at about the same time as Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and include characters from the other books.
The book hasn't endured without controversy. In a September 2001 interview in Booklist Taylor stated that "when Roll of Thunder first came out twenty-five years ago, there were white families who criticized it, saying, 'oh, this would never have happened.'...Now the same thing is going on with black families who don't want their children to hear the 'n' word and to hear about the truth. How can I tell a story about this period in our history without using this word?"
Similarly, in the foreword to the 25th anniversary edition of the book (published in 2001, and read by Taylor herself at the end of my audiobook edition), she writes,
...there are those who seek to remove books such as mine from school reading lists....There are those...who would whitewash history.
...In recent years, because of my concern about our “politically correct” society, I have found myself hesitating about using words that would have been spoken during the period my books are set. But just as I have had to be honest with myself in the telling of all my stories, I realized I must be true to the feelings of the people about whom I write, and I must be true to the stories told....My stories will not be "politically correct," so there will be those who will be offended…, but as we all know, racism is offensive. It is not polite, and it is full of pain.
At the end of this foreword, Taylor indicated she had “only one more story to tell about the Logan family. It is the story of the family in the North, the days of World War II, and the first seeds of the Civil Rights Movement.” In another interview in February 2008, Taylor said, “With the passing of many members of my family from my father’s generation - the resources of many of my stories - as well as the passing of my own generation, I hope I can still do that.”
[Cross-posted at my book blog, Bookin' It.]