Saturday, February 12, 2005

History's Children

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor, Ready by Lynne Thigpen, Recorded Books, LLC, 1994

In perusing bookstore shelves, I am often stunned by the placement of certain books in the juvenile section when they are clearly not just children’s books. What is often behind this is high school reading lists and from a certain marketing perspective it makes sense. But for the record the Harry Potter series are children’s books that can be enjoyed by adults while To Kill a Mockingbird is an adult book that can be enjoyed by children.

The previously reviewed book, Bud, Not Buddy, is a children’s book written for children clearly. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is another kettle of fish entirely. While it is narrated by a young girl and doesn’t deal with material that would be inappropriate for younger readers, it remains a book that defies easy categorization.

And that’s clearly a good thing on the one hand, because it means there are books out there which are interesting and provocative, but it’s a raw deal for the writers of these books because their output will forever be ghettoized. If I say Judy Blume, most people think children’s author. But she also wrote Wifey, Smart Women, and Summer Sisters and to discover her adult books is almost shocking.

As the story starts, we learn that the Logan family owns 400 acres of cotton land, a substantial acreage for a black family in the 1930s Deep South. Cotton prices are at this time so depressed that even with such a goodly bit of land, the taxes and mortgage were hard to meet. The book opens with the children walking the one mile to school, and here we get to meet them, learn about their personalities as they swap gossip and discuss the grown ups. Cassie is the only girl, cautious but proud. Stacy is the oldest son, just beginning to grasp his responsibility. Christopher John is a classic middle child, neither fish nor fowl, while “Little Man” has, for his age, well defined notions of cleanliness and neatness. The biggest piece of news is that some white men set a black owned field on fire. This is the beginning.

Taylor does something very fine in the way she writes her children in that she shows us their blind spots to the mysterious workings of adult life, yet even in their ignorance we, as adult readers, can see around the obscured vision to what lies beyond. And she doesn’t do it through cutesy hint-hint writing nor through after-school special epiphanies. Lessons learned here are learned the hard way, through experience and assimilation of the new knowledge.

Taylor tells us in a brief introduction that the story is partly biographical, Stacy being based on her own grandfather. This knowledge makes some of the more daring scenes tingle with an extra zing, the idea that a young black child would have had this audacity during the times of the night riders giving him your extra respect. Watching him grow through this time of trial is really quite moving.

He is the brains behind any schemes the kids come up with. When during the rainy season, the bus to the white school routinely goes out of its way to splash the Logan children, Stacy organizes his siblings to dig out a ditch in the road and fill it with muddy water to hide it. From their perch in the bushes, the kids watch as the bus hits the ditch, breaks its axle, and fries its engine. All the little white kids who laughed and shouted at the Logans from their bus have to troop out into the rain and get muddied up too. The bus is out of commission for over a month, and all the little white kids have to walk to school just like the black kids.

This scene is written with breathless tension and a grinning sense of humor. It is one of the lighter scenes of the book. Scenes from Cassie’s visit to town are suspenseful, the tension ratcheting up with each of her social missteps. From that point in the book, each successive interaction with the whites of their town is laden with apprehension, and we await the inevitable fallout, the flash point.

The climax is both thrilling and tense, while remaining ultimately rated PG, which was a relief. Anyone who’s seen pictures of Emmett Till knows full well how brutal white oppression was. The resolution of the climax is surprising, yet rings true in a way that makes me curious as to exactly how biographical Taylor’s novel really is. There is a satisfactory frustration of your fears that doesn’t sidestep accurate portrayal of the times.

What makes this a more fulfilling read than such lighter books like Curtis’ is that there is a highly specific level of detail that places it in its proper era context. The Logan grandmother Big Ma uses two irons when she irons clothes, one to warm while one is used; the textbooks for the black school are hand-me-downs from the white school and are only donated when they are in poor condition. These light details give the portrait a depth and you nod when you hear them, thinking, yes, that was probably what it was like. Curtis has characters use modern slang on a few instances, like a band member telling Bud that someone deserves his “props” which thrusts you out of the narrative with its anachronistic quality.

Actress Lynne Thigpen, unfortunately named but a familiar face to viewers of Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? and Law & Order, reads beautifully, sensitively. Sometimes her voice drops down to almost a whisper to deliver some particularly devastating bit of information before rising back up to the heights for moments of pure joy. She manages the timber of childhood with grace and ease.

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