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The Logan Family Saga: The Land, The Well, Song of the Trees, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Let the Circle be Unbroken, The Road to Memphis

January 16, 2017

I’d read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry when my children were in elementary school and we were reading all the books on a list for fifth-graders. Recently, though, Jenny at Shelflove wrote about reading Let the Circle Be Unbroken and said that it’s in a series of books about the same family, the Logans. These books are by Mildred D. Taylor and all for children, with young protagonists telling the story from the point of view of different generations, starting with young Paul-Edward, who was an infant when slavery was abolished, passing the torch to young David, Paul-Edward’s son, who inherited the land his father worked to buy, and ending with Cassie, David’s daughter, who grows up on that land. Cassie’s point of view informs the last four books, starting with a short book for young readers, Song of the Trees, and carrying on throughout Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Let the Circle be Unbroken, and The Road to Memphis.

Taylor’s genius in writing these books for children is that they will react to the prejudice as innocently as Cassie does, having grown up insulated by her own father’s land. Those around her are less fortunate, which exposes her gradually–as she grows up and learns to understand more about how the world works outside her family’s home–to the cruelties of the American Jim Crow era, explaining them to children in a way that makes them clear, but still possible for a child to read about.

In The Land, readers initially sympathize and identify with Paul-Edward Logan, and it gradually becomes clear that he is “colored.” He explains that his mother was a slave and “my daddy took a liking to her soon after she came into her womanhood and he took her for his colored woman, and that’s how my older sister Cassie and I came to be. Cassie and I were our daddy’s children, and both of us were born into slavery. Now, there were a lot of white men who fathered colored children in those days, even though the law said no white man could legally father a black child; that was in part so no child of color could inherit from his white daddy. Some white men took care of their colored children; most didn’t. My daddy was one who did. Not only did he take care of Cassie and me, but he acknowledged that we were his, though it was quietly spoken, and he raised us as his, pretty much the same as his white children, and that’s what made us different, what made me different.”

Paul-Edward feels betrayed when his white brother Robert sides with some white friends in what begins as a childish sibling quarrel and ends in lifelong estrangement between the two brothers. His father explains to him:
“’I know there were some things I’ve been wrong about in the way I’ve brought up you and Cassie, but I’ve tried to do the best I could by you. I’ve whipped you for doing wrong before. They were always whippings meant to teach you something, make you remember not to do it again. Difference today was I not only wanted you to remember that whipping, but to think on the fact that no matter how bad that strap hurt you today, what can come to you if you go hitting another white man, not just your brother and his friends, will be worse than that. Son, hitting a white man could cost you your life, and it won’t necessarily be an easy death. I’ve seen men lynched. I’ve seen men quartered. I’ve seen men burned.’ He shook his head. ‘I’d rather whip you every day of your life and have you hate me every day for the rest of it than see that happen to you.’”

What Paul-Edward does is find ways to buy his own land and keep his family as safe as they can be on it. The next book, The Well, a short book for younger readers, tells a story from his son David’s childhood in which David remembers his daddy telling him what his own father told him, that if he was going to survive in a white man’s world he would have to learn how to use his head, and not his fists. One of the continuing ironies of this saga is that the frightened parents in each generation are forced to whip their own children in order to teach them never to raise a hand to a white person.

One of the most memorable scenes in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is when young Cassie (named after her great-aunt) goes to town for the first time and is confronted by prejudice. She is trying to understand the odd behavior of a shopkeeper and has turned to go back and ask him why he had acted the way he had when, she says:
I actually turned once and headed toward the store, then remembering what Mr. Barnett had said about my returning, I swung back around, kicking at the sidewalk, my head bowed.
It was then that I bumped into Lillian Jean Simms.
“Why don’t you look where you’re going?” she asked huffily. Jeremy and her two younger brothers were with her. “Hey, Cassie,” said Jeremy.
“Hey, Jeremy,” I said solemnly, keeping my eyes on Lillian Jean.
“Well, apologize,” she ordered.
“You bumped into me. Now you apologize.”
I did not feel like messing with Lillian Jean. I had other things on my mind. “Okay,” I said, starting past, “I’m sorry.”
Lillian Jean sidestepped in front of me. “That ain’t enough. Get down in the road.”
I looked up at her. “You crazy?”
“You can’t watch where you going, get in the road. Maybe that way you won’t be bumping into decent white folks with your little nasty self.”
The reader is about as surprised as Cassie herself, witnessing this kind of behavior. The apology goes on for pages, including the white father’s demand that she address the other little girl as “Miz Lillian Jean,” until Cassie concludes that “no day in all my life has ever been as cruel as this one.” There are bigger cruelties in the book, of course, but Cassie’s point of view is an innocent one.

In Let the Circle Be Unbroken, David explains prejudice to Cassie and tells her “There’s colored folks and there’s white folks. They don’t want nothing to do with us ‘cepting what we can do for them, and Lord knows I don’t want nothin’ to do with them. They leave us alone, we leave them alone. And it wouldn’t worry me one bit if a whole year’d go by and I wouldn’t have to see a one of ‘em.”

Cassie sees a little colored boy almost lynched and then condemned to death by a court of law for a series of mistakes that began when he thought two white boys could be his friends. She sees casual brutality towards animals visited by people who have seen brutality visited upon other people. She sees an old woman, beloved by her community, whose entire family is turned out of their house for her audacity in learning the entire US Constitution by heart in the hope that she will be allowed to register to vote. She sees her older cousin, who can pass for white, try to stay out of the way of local white boys, who could do anything they wanted to with her if they caught her out alone. She sees struggles with unions during the Great Depression, and the way the rich white people set the poor whites against the idea of “schooling with nigras, socializing with nigras…marrying with nigras!”

In The Road to Memphis, a friend of the Logan family finally gives in to the overwhelming temptation to use his fists against a white boy and has to be rushed out of Mississippi to Memphis and put on a train to Chicago in order to save his life. Along the way, readers learn what it was like for people of color to have to take a road trip in 1941.

Although they have a basket with food and drink, they have nowhere to go when one of them gets so sick he needs a hospital, finally leaving him at the home of a kind (colored) stranger. They have even more trouble when they are forced to stop at a gas station. They are minding their own business and keeping their heads down when a group of young white men decide to give them a hard time, calling Cassie’s brother Stacey “boy” and ordering them around, complete with completely uncalled-for comments about how “Niggers get a bit of a machine under they butt, and they start to feeling they can back-talk a white man whenever they get a mind.” When Cassie has the audacity to look into the gas station restroom because she is scared to go into the bushes at night, a white woman accuses her of using it and the attendant tells her off for “putting your black butt where white ladies got t’sit. Oughta call the sheriff and have him take you down to that jail” before scaring her so badly she falls down on the pavement trying to run away from him, which he takes as an opportunity to put his foot on her purse so she can’t get it and kick her “like somebody with no heart would kick a dog.”

When they reach Memphis, it’s December 7, 1941. One of Cassie’s friends says he is going to sign up to go overseas and fight and when she asks why says “Haven’t you heard his [Hitler’s] talk about the master race? Way he figure, nobody is as good as folks of that so-called superior race!” She replies that “White folks figure the same here.”

It’s a grim series because readers care about the characters, feeling the insults, the blows, and the generations of unfair acts they suffer. I think it might work as a good introduction for readers of any age or color who don’t understand the how the bitterness of a book like Between the World and Me might have been grown and shaped by generations of fear and resentment.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. January 16, 2017 9:10 am

    I was thinking last night about books to help us talk about racism and the history behind it in this country just last night. I don’t know these but will track them down. I would also recommend Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Newberry Honor winner for The War That Saved My Life and an old friend of mine–these two facts are quite unrelated I assure you).

    • January 16, 2017 9:27 am

      Oh yes, I read The War That Saved My Life. Thinking about Jefferson’s Sons is timely in the wake of the anti-Jefferson sentiment spawned by fans of the musical Hamilton!
      One of the things that makes the Logan family saga so powerful is that the books are based on stories passed down in the author’s own family.

  2. January 16, 2017 4:50 pm

    I love Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I taught it to two classes of 7th graders almost 20 years ago now. I never did read the rest of the books, though I intended to. Maybe I’ll pick one up later this year since I’m reading with my students again, twice a day every other day, reader’s workshop style. They Logan family books have fallen out of use lately. Part of this is because they are too old, few kids want to read books set in the past, fewer still want to read books published long before they were born. I wonder if the times have changed around the Logans, too. Could be both. I think it’s time to reissue them with covers geared towards adults. I think there would be a market for them.

    • January 17, 2017 9:44 pm

      I think more adults should read these books. The events of the last one take place when my parents’ generation were children, so you’d think we’d have studied more of this in history class, but I didn’t–at least not this close up, and in such detail.

  3. January 17, 2017 3:50 pm

    I read Roll of Thunder when I was a kid and really liked it. At the time no one mentioned it was a sequel and the others weren’t even published yet. I am glad to hear it ended up being such a good story and will keep it in mind should I ever find myself buying books for a kid the right age.

    • January 17, 2017 9:46 pm

      Depending on the kid, I’d guess the right age is between 8 and 14. But again, these books can also help adults understand more about issues that are still with us today.

  4. Jenny permalink
    January 17, 2017 9:09 pm

    What a great review! I’m so glad you enjoyed the other books as well. Was there one that you thought was the best of them, or did they all sort of fit together?

    • January 17, 2017 9:40 pm

      Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is clearly the best. I really like The Road to Memphis, too–it doesn’t suffer from the “too many issues” plot that crowds Let the Circle Be Unbroken.

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