Thursday, August 20, 2009
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
As I'm going through these YA titles that I could potentially read with my eighth grade classroom, I'm weeding some out and keeping some in mind. I just recently finished Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. We were forced to read this book in an undergraduate class on teaching literacy, and now I see why this book might not be too bad to teach.
What I like about the book is that it opens up a lot of areas for discussion. It deals with some pretty serious issues surrounding the struggle of African Americans that I find it rich to discuss with middle school students. It touches upon slavery, the KKK, hate crimes, sharecropping, bigotry, educational differences, and unjust treatment socially, economically, and educationally. I think it's worth teaching just because it opens up these avenues for discussion and introduces these concepts early on in the mind of the student.
A few concerns do come to mind, though. The book is quite long for a middle school student, and since the content is a little more sophisticated and serious, this book would have to be taught later on in the year. I'm afraid that the length and content are going to turn the heads of my students. And at times, the book can get rather dry. The characters aren't that dynamic--except for Stacey and perhaps TJ--but I don't think students are looking that in depth into the characters.
Basically, the story is about a large family who owns a lot of land, which is strange for African Americans of the south. The land is a big motif throughout, as it represents the only source of power and threat they hold over the white community. It is important for them to have the land since it is the only thing they can hang on to, the only thing that their family has to pass on. It's sort of representative of their family and their people--it's something tangible that they can be proud of.
The protagonist is Cassie, an eleven-year-old girl, who has three brothers: Stacey, Little Man, and Christopher-John. Stacey grows the most from the beginning to the end of the novel since he is learning the ways of being a black man in the 30s. He conflicts with his friend TJ who cheats him, takes his mother's teaching job away from ratting her out, befriends whites, and gets himself into a heap of trouble. TJ trusts whites who do nothing but get him in trouble. At the end of the novel, they end up making him steal a rifle, and when they are caught, the white boys murder the man who interrupted them and blame it on TJ. TJ is eventually sentenced to death at the hands of these two white teenage boys.
Cassie is a strong character who can't stand injustice. She even takes it out on a white girl who she helps carry books to school by beating her up and antagonizing her out in the forest. She can't stand when she isn't helped on by whites in the grocery store and must wait and wait and wait. She can't stand it when the white children take a bus to school and they have to walk (so they build a ditch to take down the school bus). She can't stand it when the local grocer threatens their family after they boycott the grocer for ill treatment to blacks. She can't stand for any kind of injustice.
Both of Cassie's parents struggle financially and with jobs. Early in the book, Cassie's mother is fired for taking out "colored" labels in the books and for teaching the truths of slavery. Cassie's father has to travel to work, working on the railroad, and isn't in too much of the book. Mr. Morrison lives in their backyard to take the place of their father. He is a strong man who helps them throughout the book. Also, Pa's brother Uncle Hammer comes occaisonally to help out with money or when they are in trouble. However, he is just like Cassie; he hates injustice and will do anything to combat it, even if it means his life.
Cassie's family dodges hate crimes, as others are tarred and feathered, beaten, and lynched. It seems like an endless battle for them just to earn enough money to eat. It's pretty sad. But, I think these plot points are good to introduce to students.
The character of Jeremy is also interesting to discuss. He is a white teenager who goes against the grain of what whites believe, and he is nice to blacks. He hangs out with them, walks with them to school, and brings them presents on Christmas. Jeremy truly wants to be friends with them, but Stacey can never allow it into his heart to trust a white person, especially with how whites treat TJ. The lawyer also is a character similar to Jeremy as he stands up for blacks when they want to murder TJ without a fair trial and then take on Cassie's family afterwards just for sport.
I didn't realize that this book is as old as it is. It was published in 1976 and won the Newberry Medal. A sequel came out a few years afterward called Let the Circle Be Unbroken. What is that one about? Is it worth reading?
I'm going to plan a Webquest and a PowerPoint project for after the novel. I'm pretty excited about it. I hope that I can interest my students in this novel, because I fear I won't be able to. I feel like tolerance is a great lesson to teach students, especially as I teach in a predominantly white school. Even if they can't relate, I think it's good to know. Knowledge beats ignorance.
If anyone has any good ideas on how to teach this book, any fun activities or discussions, please let me know.
What do you think of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry?