I started reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry almost a year ago. I'd heard it was a powerful book, and an important one, but it wasn't one of the Newbery winners that I really wanted to read. It was one that I felt like I should read.
After reading the first five chapters, I was filled with foreboding, waiting for a major character to be horribly killed or wounded. It didn't help that I had read Sounder not too long before I started Roll of Thunder.
I had the same feeling when I started reading The Kite Runner a few years ago, which I also put off reading for a couple years despite the fact that it seemed like half the people I know had already read it and recommended it. What can I say? One reason I read is for relaxation and escape, and I don't generally like Oprah-esque literary fiction. I did end up being very happy that I read The Kite Runner, mind you.
Then I got a part-time writing job, and happily abandoned Roll of Thunder (and indeed, all the remaining winners I hadn't yet read), and filled my drastically reduced reading time with books that didn't engender feelings of impending doom.
I finished my job last month, and finally returned to Roll of Thunder again. I was still worried about the characters - and reading They Called Themselves the KKK by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (one of the books in the running for this year's Newbery prize) just before resuming Roll of Thunder didn't exactly make me feel any better about Cassie, Stacey, Christopher-John, Little Man, and their extended family's prospects in Mississippi in the 1930's. It was pretty depressing. So I did something that I know drives some people crazy - I skipped ahead and read the last couple of pages. I wanted to be prepared for the worst that Mildred D. Taylor could throw at me.
Well, I could tell from the last few pages that Taylor's worst wasn't unbearable, and so I was able to finish the book with less foreboding, not wincing quite so much at the (sometimes heavy) foreshadowing, or every time Cassie lost her temper. I have to say that Taylor did an excellent job of describing the Logan siblings, and she used history - as in Mr. Morrison's Reconstruction-era story that he told on Christmas, which could have come straight out of They Called Themselves the KKK - very skillfully. The history doesn't ever overpower the Logans' story, but it serves as powerful backdrop, enriching the plot and putting the the characters' actions into a carefully constructed and entirely believable context.
It's a timeless book, too - Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry was written in 1976, but you really couldn't tell, unlike some of the other Newbery winners that feel a bit dated now (like Summer of the Swans, for instance, or It's Like This, Cat). I wonder if this accounts for some of the appeal that historical fiction seems to hold the Newbery Committee. At any rate, Roll of Thunder reads like a classic. And yes, parts of it were disturbing, but it was not a horribly depressing book. I actually want to read some of Mildred Taylor's other books about the Logan family now!