Mildred D. Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, on its surface, seems to be a response to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. They're both similar in their setting and their themes. While a major theme in both is racism in the Jim Crow-era South, they tackle this theme from different perspectives. Harper Lee's heroine is a young white girl, and Mildred D. Taylor's young heroine is a young black girl. To Kill a Mockingbird was written 16 years earlier than Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and perhaps in 1960 it would have been more difficult for a black woman to write the sort of critique of the South that Lee does. However, one of the problems with To Kill a Mockingbird is that it tells its story of racism from the safe eyes of a young white girl, and its portrayal of race ends up being condescending. It takes a virtuous white man like Atticus Finch to defend the injustices done to the black community, and in the novel Atticus is revered as a saint. On the other hand, Taylor's Logan family is strong and self-sufficient and doesn't need the aid of whites to survive. Taylor tells an inspiring and compelling drama.
Nine-year-old Cassie Logan is a fortunate young girl because her family owns their own land. In 1933 in Mississippi, this is a rare thing for a black family, and the other black families are sharecroppers, owing huge debts to the more powerful white farmers in the area. This helps keep the white-black power hierarchy of slavery times alive. The whites don't like the face that the Logans own their own land, because it makes them independent, which is a kind of power on its own.
Cassie is the second youngest of four kids, with her oldest brother Stacey beginning to transition into manhood, her next oldest brother Christopher-John the most timid of all, and her youngest brother Little Man not afraid to speak his mind, and a strong little mind he has. Cassie and her brothers live with their mother, Mary, and grandmother, Big Ma, and her father, David, spends most of the year in Texas working on railroads. The family grows cotton to help pay off the mortgage and taxes, while David's money buys things the family needs. Mary earns some extra income as well, teaching at the local school for blacks, where she spreads progressive values.
The Logan kids walk a mile to school every day in the short school year, which is based around the crop cycle. The white kids ride the bus to a separate school, and the bus driver takes special joy in tormenting the black kids that cross its path. This upsets Little Man, who prides himself on his cleanliness, when the bus sprays him with red dust from the road on his first day at school. Little Man is also upset when he and his classmates receive books for the first time, but they turn out to be ragged hand-me-downs from the white students. Little Man's teacher scolds him because she believes everyone should be happy with what they have, but the Logan family disagrees. It's a matter of equality and fairness.
Other important characters include T.J., Stacey's best friend. He likes attention and will do anything to get it, even though this gets him into big trouble. There is also Mr. Morrison, who Cassie's father brings from the railroads to live with the family because he got himself into some trouble. He's a very large and very kind man, and it's clear that Cassie's father, David, feels better having him there to protect the family from danger. The main antagonist is Harlan Granger, whose family used to own the land the Logans now own, and he wants to buy it back from them. When the Logans begin trying to shake up the white power, Granger does everything in his power to try to get them evicted. Cassie's Uncle Hammer stirs things up even more when he comes from Chicago to visit and shows off his brand new car. In Mississippi, blacks should know their place, but Uncle Hammer isn't afraid to flaunt what he has.
The story is told from the perspective of Cassie, in the first person, and it's clear to readers that she and her brothers are only beginning to realize the realities of racism that is an everyday source of fear for the adults. Cassie has a strong sense of fairness, and when she, Stacey, and T.J. are neglected by a white shopkeeper in favor of the white patrons, she speaks her mind without realizing the dangers of doing so. She doesn't understand why her grandmother won't back her up in another dispute with a white girl, either. She's expected to keep her mouth shut though it goes against her very nature. Worst of all, the law turns a blind eye to the crimes committed by whites against blacks. For example, everyone knows the Wallaces, another powerful white family in the community, burned two black men for supposedly flirting with a white woman, but nothing's done about it, and Cassie doesn't understand why. She has a sense that everything should be fair, but hasn't yet realized that the world she has grown up in is more fair to some than to others.
There are a couple of sympathetic whites in the novel. There's the boy, Jeremy Wallace, who tries to befriend the Logan children. He doesn't like the way his family treats blacks, but because he's a Wallace, the Logans are wary of his attempts to befriend them. The reader can't help but root for Jeremy, and it seems the story is about to head in a direction towards friendship when Stacey confesses to his father that he actually likes Jeremy and thinks he would be a good friend. His father, however, warns Stacey that good things rarely come from a relationship between a black and a white man. The white man, being in a position of power, will always think of himself as better than the black man, and one day the sweet and innocent Jeremy might think himself a man while he still regards Stacey as a boy. Pragmatism is more important for survival than romanticism.
The other sympathetic white man is Mr. Jamison, a lawyer who helps the Logans with their mortgage and other legal matters. He takes a big risk when he decides to help them shake up the racial power dynamics by backing the credit of the other blacks in the community so they can shop somewhere that they won't be held ransom to their debt. The Logans are reluctant to accept his offer, but find that they have no choice. It would seem that this black family must rely on a benevolent white man to improve the situation of their town, but things aren't so simple, and Mr. Jamison is not portrayed with the same reverence as Atticus Finch.
Most of all, this is a story for young teens. It's about a young teenage girl growing up in a harsh and unfair world, though still experiencing the same growing pains and life lessons as anybody else. Anybody can relate to this story, and it has an even deeper resonance because of this nation's history. It has a beautiful story, and its power is felt the strongest at its conclusion. While I agree that everybody should read To Kill A Mockingbird, I also believe the same is true of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. It is a powerful, important, and enjoyable piece of American literature.