Mildred Taylor’s ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY has always been a favorite – I’ve read it, and its 2 sequels, over and over. But I only just recently learned that there is a prequel, THE LAND, that has been sitting there, unread by me, all along. No longer.
THE LAND is excellent in all the ways that ROLL OF THUNDER and LET THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN are excellent (I think THE ROAD TO MEMPHIS is very good, but not quite on par with the prior two). Great, complex characters, engrossing story, and most impressively, a really deep exploration of slavery, racism, and how people, black and white, deal with injustice in a realistic way (which Elizabeth wrote an excellent post about a while back). THE LAND is the story of Cassie Logan’s grandfather Paul Edward. Its set during Reconstruction, and Paul Edward is the son of a man and one of his former slaves. The exploration of his relationships with his father and his white brothers is pretty impressive in that it manages to very realistically humanize the white characters without in any way excusing their racism, or ignoring the reality of their place in the post-slavery power structure, and the power imbalances in their relationships with black people. As in Taylor’s other books, the way the characters, white and black, respond to and live within their racist society, is varied, nuanced, and believable.
What struck me most, though, was that reading THE LAND felt like finally hearing the full story of something you kind of know about and have often heard in bits and pieces, but now are getting all the gaps filled in, all the bits of information you just sort of know put in order and strung together. Which is an incredible testament to the world Mildred Taylor built in this series of books – its common to talk about world-building in fantasy books, where authors have to construct a full and consistent reality, but I think its a different kind of impressive to so fully construct a “real” world, one which is historically accurate, but has characters and places rich enough in detail, with personal histories so full, that reading more about them feels like hearing your grandma tell stories about when she was growing up, where a lot of it you didn’t really know, but it all sort of feels familiar anyway. I can’t recall another book where I felt that sensation of familiarity so strongly.
And actually, reading Taylor’s books again set me off on a civil rights history kick in my reading – and so I will mention, although its, you know, not on the topic of this blog, that LETTERS FROM MISSISSIPPI, edited by Elizabeth Sutherland Martinez, is one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time and I highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in civil rights history.