Previously in this series: The Giver.
I never realized that a book could have a counterpart written by somebody else until I read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and realized it stands as a perfect response to To Kill A Mockingbird. Both are written by women, are narrated by young girls with tempers and moody older brothers. Both girls try to make sense of a difficult adult world that seems to make things more complicated and unfair than they need to be. They’re both set in the deep South in the 1930s, during a particularly racially charged series of events. But Roll of Thunder, in this bi-racial-but-non-Southern-during-the-Depression-girl’s opinion, hits on the nuances and gut-wrenching truths of racism in a way Mockingbird never does.
You may be thinking that, this soon into this series, I’m already diverging from the beloved young adult novels you were promised. I understand that To Kill A Mockingbird is not a nice book for kids. It’s big. But it’s also pretty much required reading for every American child by the time they turn thirteen. I attended two middle schools, and while switching, missed the year I was supposed to read To Kill A Mockingbird. I tried reading it on my own, but got bored and gave up after about 10 pages.
To Kill A Mockingbird is about a seven-year-old tomboy named Scout, and her obsessions. For a long time, she’s obsessed with Boo Radley, a reclusive neighborhood weirdo who may or may not have stabbed his dad in the leg with a pair of scissors. For as long as I’ve known about this book, his name has been whispered in reverent tones along with words like “mystery” and “powerful symbol.” Until about 30 pages in I mistakenly thought he was black because I knew the main conflict of the book had to do with race and I assumed that Boo Radley, the character everyone mentions when they talk about this book, would be a part of that conflict. But no; you know what he does? He gets stalked by some children and then not mentioned for about 200 pages.
In an attempt to figure out why everyone flips out about Boo Radley, I consulted Cliffs Notes, which said that he and Tom Robinson (the black character who is falsely accused of rape by a white woman) are foils, and act as the novel’s titular “mockingbirds.” The title comes from a part in the book when the kids get guns for Christmas, and their father tells them that they can shoot whatever birds they want, except mockingbirds.
When they ask why, he says jays and pigeons and other birds eat weeds and are annoying, whereas all mockingbirds do is sing and thus they’re innocent and shouldn’t be shot.
What a bonkers moral! Sure, it’s generally wrong kill an innocent being, but if it gets in your hedges, by all means shoot the shit out of it? Not to mention the racial implications of not shooting something because it’s good at singing and being innocent and helpless. Anyway, this seems to be the moral Lee wants in your mind for the for the awful things that are going to happen to Tom Robinson. I’m still not sure whether these uncomfortable implications were intentional or not.
Scout gets distracted from Boo by a school bully, who insults her father Atticus for defending a black man in court. This man, Tom Robinson, has been falsely accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell, which just about every white person in town is ready to hang him for. Atticus, the world’s most improbably fair and just human being, is assigned to be Tom’s defense lawyer. Atticus sits outside of Tom’s jail cell every evening so the “night men” don’t attack him, and even manages to prove conclusively that Tom didn’t do it (and that Mayella’s father, Bob, probably did, in a court scene that uses a lot of victim-blaming language which is difficult to read), but Tom is still found guilty. He is later killed while trying to escape prison. Even though Scout and her brother and Atticus are upset about this miscarriage of justice, life goes on.
Scout starts learning how to be a woman. She and her brother read to a woman addicted to morphine. She has a few lines in a school pageant dressed as a ham. Later, walking home from the pageant, she and her brother are attacked by Bob Ewell, and Boo Radley Deus-Ex-Machinas his way in and saves them, killing Bob in the process.
Atticus and the sheriff later decide that the “official story” will be that Bob Ewell fell on his knife, because otherwise everyone in the town might think of Boo Radley as a hero and bother him all the time, which would be terrible because he enjoys his privacy. They decide this without asking Boo Radley. You’d think that maybe one of them would take a second to ask “Hey, Boo, you know how everyone thinks you’re creepy and violent and shuns you in a fashion that’s turned you into a recluse? Any interest in taking some public credit for this action that could totally clear your name?,” but no, they just decide what’s best for him and move on.
Look, this is a great book about some big-picture racism. There is injustice, and a man who essentially has no skin in the game but stands up for what’s right anyway. It’s heartbreaking when things doesn’t work out, but he does his part to make sure his children know right from wrong. So many friends point to this book, and to Atticus Finch in particular, as the inspiration to examine their own morals. And really, that’s not bad, for a book. Atticus does put his neck out for someone none of his peers care about, and that is a good thing for any kid to see.
But let’s be real: Atticus Finch is a fairy tale. Yes, there were white people who opposed institutional racism in the 1930s, and as an educated lawyer it’s likely that Finch would perhaps have had a more enlightened perspective on race than most of his contemporaries. But Atticus Finch is fleshless and perfect and I had a hard time believing there’s nothing wrong with him. He had to have been mean once, right? The greatest concession we see him make to his surroundings is his willingness to bring his sister in to teach Scout how to act as a lady, but even that seems more like a reluctant, practical decision to teach Scout The Way Things Are rather than any desire for her to join adult society as-it-is. It’s wonderful but it’s inhuman, and as an adult I felt like it actively took away from my enjoyment of the novel. I was waiting for him to demonstrate a flaw, to experience a believable struggle, to be real.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry brings the big-picture issues of To Kill A Mockingbird into the everyday. The story is narrated by Cassie Logan, a nine-year-old black girl living in Virginia in the 1930s, on land her grandfather bought during Reconstruction but that their white neighbor wants to take back from them. The different experiences of life of white people and black people in the South are filtered through her eyes, and we see how confusing things can be as she slowly learns how unfair American society is.
She and her brothers walk to school every day, and don’t understand when their parents explain that they don’t have a school bus because they’re black. Oftentimes adults explain injustices with “because you’re black,” expecting the kids to accept that as a reason without question, when it just leaves them more confused and angry.
Right off the bat there is a scene that, in just a few pages, encompasses all the cruelty of institutionalized racism that To Kill A Mockingbird takes a whole book to describe. The students at Cassie’s school are receiving textbooks for the first time, but when they get them, they’re worn and stained, ten-year-old cast-offs from the white children. Cassie’s little brother gets one, and turns to the inside page, where he sees this chart:
Furious, he throws the book down and stomps on it, and when the teacher chastises him, Cassie tries to explain that he was reacting to the racial slur written in the book. The teacher tells them “that’s what you are,” and punishes them for harming school property.
I mean, this is what empathy is about, right? In one second you see this anger, and the resulting confusion when no one understands your anger, and the punishment for having what seems like a completely reasonable reaction, and you just get it. (I mean, get it as much as you can through reading a book and not actually experiencing any of this firsthand.) You see how people grow up angry, or how people are taught not to fight back, or how the instinct to build a successful life is cut down to an instinct of just getting by.
Later, the Logan siblings exert what little power they have by digging a trench and watching the white kids’ bus sink into the mud, forcing the white kids to walk to school like the rest of them. Who would deny them that moment?
Cassie’s mom, who is also a teacher, paints over the offensive words and gives the books back to the students, but things only get worse. “Night men,” led by the Wallaces, roll through town and burn three black men, so everyone in the community is on guard. Since the Wallaces own the town store, the Logan family tries to convince the other black families to shop elsewhere. But because they’re all sharecroppers, the plantation owners won’t let them shop anywhere else. Papa Logan has a friend from the railroad, Mr. Morrison, live with his family to protect them while he’s gone.
A white man twists Cassie’s arm and pushes her into the street for not saying “excuse me” to his daughter while passing her, and Cassie’s grandma tells her to just go along with it. One night while Papa Logan is bringing supplies from a store in Vicksburg (where they’ve convinced at least a few families to shop instead), he gets shot at by the Wallaces and breaks his leg, making it impossible for him to go back to work on the rails.
Then there’s TJ, the Logans’ troublemaking friend who starts hanging out with the Wallace’s even more troublemaking teenage sons. TJ tells them Cassie’s mom whited-out the slurs in the textbooks, so she gets fired, making it that much harder for them to pay the taxes on their land.
Finally, TJ is framed for murder. He spends most of the book coveting a pistol at a store in town, and his white friends talk him into stealing it. All three of them break in, but the owners wake up and come downstairs, where they see TJ and what they believe to be two other black children (the Wallaces are wearing black stockings on their faces). The Wallaces beat up the owners, leaving them for dead, and beat up TJ when he threatens to tell the truth. Soon the whole town is hunting for TJ, and in order to keep the Night Men from hanging him as soon as they find him, Papa Logan distracts the town by setting his own cotton fields on fire.
We’re left never knowing if they had to sell the land or not. It’s brutal.
The most interesting part of Roll of Thunder, I think, comes with the Logan children’s relationship to Jeremy Wallace, the awkward son of the racist family. He walks to school with the Logans every day, and in general tries to hang out with them and be their friend. They think he’s sort of weird and are confused why the hell he wants to hang out with them, but put up with him anyway.
On Christmas, Jeremy shows up at their house with a hand-carved flute for Stacey (Cassie’s older brother), and shyly wishes everyone well before Papa Logan tells him he needs to go home. Papa asks Stacey if he’s friends with Jeremy, and when he says he thinks Jeremy could turn into a better friend than TJ, Papa proceeds to tell him how eventually Jeremy will realize he’s white and want nothing to do with Stacey. He tells him how in his experience friendships between white and black people never work, and how he should probably start ignoring Jeremy altogether.
Papa Logan is, like Atticus Finch, the moral center of this book. He’s a man willing to do anything to protect his family and to keep his land. He gives Cassie strong lectures on standing up for herself, defending what’s right, and not letting anybody walk over her. But he is also human, and as a black man living in the rural South during the Depression, he is not going to tell his son to be best friends with someone he knows will hurt him. It’s heartbreaking and practical.
The main difference is that To Kill A Mockingbird is a book written for adults with a childishly simple moral, and Roll of Thunder is a book written for children that is powerfully adult. Behind the breathtaking sentences (“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” I MEAN.), To Kill A Mockingbird is a story about learning the difference between right and wrong, and then doing what’s right. It’s an important lesson, and one that everyone should definitely start thinking about as a kid. But it’s also simple.
Roll of Thunder takes that idea to the next level, showing the deep personal calculus necessary to weigh “doing what’s right” against public expectation, personal safety, and what kind of privilege is necessary to even be able to make that choice. Atticus Finch can do the right thing, have it not work, but still say “hey, at least I tried.” His children can be attacked and it’s considered a crime punishable by the full extent of the law. If the Logans do the “right thing,” everything they hold dear will be destroyed. If a Logan is attacked, no one in power cares.
Like many who were raised with relatively little firsthand experience of racism, it’s taken me a long time to fully understand what modern racism looks like, where it comes from, and the sorts of destructive behaviors that keep it going. Even though I hadn’t read To Kill A Mockingbird, I had in many ways absorbed the “just do what’s right” message, assuming that if I personally didn’t care about race I was doing my part, and that if everyone could do that it would be over. Later I realized how much that requires holding everyone to your own privileged standards. To Kill A Mockingbird makes you think you understand the way things are, and the way things should be. Roll of Thunder makes you quiet down and listen.