by Mildred D. Taylor
Cassie Logan and her family battled the repulsive racism that was rampant in the Deep South during the Great Depression of the United States in the 1930s. In Mississippi during the Depression, African-Americans suffered unjustified and brutal attacks by certain members of the white population. The one saving grace of the Logan family is that they own their own land. During the Depression, sharecropping was commonplace for both black and white families (remember the Joads from The Grapes of Wrath?)
The family consisted of our narrator and protagonist, Cassie. She has three brothers, oldest child Stacey, heavy-set Christopher-John, and the youngest and most concerned with tidiness, Little Man (Clayton Chester). Mama Mary Logan was a seventh-grade teacher at the Great Faith Elementary and Secondary School, where the children attended. Big Ma (Grandma Logan) took care of the farm and helped out with the children. Papa David Logan, who laid railroad track in Louisanna, was often absent from the family physically, but not mentally or emotionally. Cassie says:
I asked him once why he had to go away, why the land was so important. He took my hand and said in his quiet way: “Look out there, Cassie girl. All that belongs to you. You ain’t never had to live on nobody’s place but your own and long as I live and the family survives, you’ll never have to. That’s important. You may not understand that now, but one day you will. Then you’ll see.”
On the first day of school, used books were being issued to the students. Little Man, who doesn’t like anything dirty, refused to take the book that Miss Crocker issued him. Cassie, after opening up the book, soon realized that the books had been used for ten years by white students, and are only now being used by black students.
Miss Crocker rushed to Little Man and grabbed him up in powerful hands. She shook him vigorously, then set him on the floor again. “Now, just what’s gotten into you Clayton Chester?”
But Little Man said nothing. He just stood staring down at the open book, shivering with indignant anger.
“Pick it up,” she ordered.
“Pick it up,” she ordered.
“No!” defied Little Man.
“No? I’ll give you ten seconds to pick up that book, boy, or I’m going to get my switch.”
Miss Crocker, the anti-model for classroom management, did not seem to realize that not only was Little Man unhappy about the physical condition of the book, but the symbolic nature of the book being used and given to the students as a “special” treat.
On the way to the first day of school, T.J. Avery, the Eddie Haskel of the book, informs the Logan children of a midnight burning that severely injured an African-American family named Berry. When news came of Mr. Samuel Berry’s nephew’s death and the details of the attack by white men were revealed, Papa informs the family and their company that, “In this family, we don’t shop at the Wallace store.”
While Papa was back for the weekend, he brought a man home named L.T. Morrison. Morrison used to work on the railroad, but said that he was let go because of a fight with white bosses. Morrison was a large man. Cassie began to wonder why her father had really hired this man.
The white children in the community who go to, you guessed it, the Jefferson Davis school on a bus, often would splash mud all over the children headed to Great Faith school. Shouts of racial epithets came from the only white children on the bus. One particularly rainy October day, the Logan children had taken enough of the abuse. They, lead by usually subdued Stacey, snuck out at lunchtime and dug a huge hole in the unpaved, dirt road. After school, when the bus from Jefferson Davis came down the road, it hit the gigantic hole and busted the buses axle. HAHA! As Cassie says, “Oh, how sweet was well-maneuvered revenge!”
That evening, Mr. Avery stopped by to inform the family that his wife Fannie, a maid for Harlan Granger, a white, wealthy man, had seen Mr. Granger, the bus driver, and two other men talking. It is revealed that the midnight riders of white men would be out this evening. The Logan children, who had been told to go to bed, but were spying on the conversation, feared that their earlier actions of revenge might have caused a ripple of retaliation. Cassie snuck out of the house in time to see the caravan of white men and Mr. Morrison guarding the house with a shotgun. The cars with the white men soon retreated past the Logan farm.
Guilt seems to absorb the Logan children. However, the children, with the exception of Stacey, have taken an interest in Mr. Morrison. Stacey believes because he is the oldest, he should be taking care of the farm. Stacey is a loyal young man. He even takes the blame for T.J. trying to cheat on a history test in Mama’s class. After he received his punishment from Mrs. Logan, Stacey found out that T.J. had gone up to the Wallace store. Stacey, defying his father’s instructions, races to the Wallace store to beat up T.J. The rest of the Logan children follow and are soon found by Morrison. He said that he would leave the decision to tell Mama Logan about their breaking the rules.
“How come, Mr. Morrison? he asked. “How come you ain’t gonna to tell Mama?” Mr. Morrison slowed Jack as we turned into the road leading home. “’Cause I’m leaving it up to you to tell her.”
Stacey eventually told his mother that he had chased T.J. to the Wallace store to beat him up and that Morrison stopped the fight. He never mention that his sister and two brothers had been there as well. She scolded the children, but did not whip them. She had a better idea: They would visit Mr. Samuel Berry, disfigured from the attacks and fire from the white midnight riders.
Big Ma tells Cassie that Mr. Granger has been troubling her about the land. The Grangers were quite poor at the time that Big Ma and her husband, Grandpa Paul Edward, bought the land that they have.
“Now all the boys I got is my baby boys, your papa and your Uncle Hammer, and this they place as much as it is mine. They blood’s in this land, and here that Harlan Granger always talkin’ bout buyin’ it. He pestered Paul Edward to death ‘bout buyin’ it, now he peterin’ me. Humph!” she grumped angrily. “He don’t know nothin’ about me or this land, he think I’m gonna sell!”
Big Ma is the rock of the family. She is the link between the past and the future. However, the family is stuck within this violent, irrational present. This part of the book really reminded me of my family. We have our farm, our property, and we all cherish it. Trying to sell, at least this moment in life, is really out of the question.
While visiting Mr. Berry, the children witnessed the brutality of the midnight riders.
A still form lay there staring at us with glittering eyes. The face had no nose, and the head no hair; the skin was scarred, burned, and the lips were wizened black, like charcoal.
After leaving the Berry’s, Mama Logan was quick to let her children know that the Wallace’s were responsible for what happened to Mr. Berry. Mrs. Logan, on the way home, begins her campaign to boycott the Wallace store. They stop by many house trying to recruit willing participants.
When Big Ma takes Stacey, Cassie, and T.J. to Strawberry for a trip to the market, trouble ensues. While Big Ma visits with Mr. Wade Jamison, a white lawyer who is an ally to the African-American community, the children go to the mercantile store. This was T.J.’s idea (of course) and against Big Ma’s instructions. At Barnett’s mercantile store, T.J. is assisted at first, then when white customers come in is left while Mr. Barnett attends to them first. After taking care of them, he returns to help T.J. Then, when it happens again, Cassie reminds Mr. Barnett that they were there first. She raises quite a ruckus: “We been waiting on you for near an hour,” I hissed, “while you ‘round here waiting on everyone else. And it ain’t fair. You got no right—“
Screaming, outraged and humiliated, Cassie was thrown out of the store. That is where she bumps into Lillian Jean Simms, Jeremy Simms sisters. Jeremy was not racist, unlike the rest of his family. He was friendly with the Logan children. But his sister, Lillian Jean, and his father, who is really one of the midnight riders, were staunch racists. They force Cassie to make an apology.
When Big Ma, Stacey, and Cassie return home from Strawberry, they see a car that resembles Mr. Grangers. It is revealed to be Uncle Hammers, who has driven in from Chicago. When he hears about the day’s events, he immediately storms out to find Charlie Simms and confront him about the injustice that Cassie has suffered. Big Ma pleas, “Let it be, son! That child ain’t hurt!” Morrison is quick to follow him, and talks him out of doing anything rash. Hammer, a very passionate man, gives Stacey a wool coat as a gift. True to form, T.J. makes fun of Stacey and says, “Like I said, it’s all right…if you like lookin’ like a fat preacher.” T.J. eventually cons Stacey into giving him the jacket.
Papa Logan returned on Christmas Eve. The Logan family, and Mr. Morrison, gathered for a delicious feast. Nestled around the fireplace, the adults began to share stories of the past. The most gut-wrenching story was the one told by Morrison. He conveyed a story of a Christmas right after Reconstruction. His mother and father were killed by white night riders. Morrison says: “But my mama and daddy they loved each other and they loved us children, and that Christmas they fought them demons out of hell like avenging angels of the Lord.” “They died that night. Them night men kilt ‘em. Some folks tell me I can’t remember what happened that Christmas—I warn’t hardly six years old—but I remembers all right. I makes myself remember.” Although Mama Logan didn’t really want the children to hear this tale of woe, Papa wanted the children to hear their history. Cassie unable to sleep because of the disturbing story, overhears the family talking about using the farm as collateral so that other black families can have credit to shop other places beside Wallace’s.
On Christmas Day, the children are thrilled to receive books, bananas, licorice, and new clothes from Uncle Hammer. Jeremy Simms stops by to deliver a bag full of nuts and a whistle for Stacey. Papa warns Stacey that the Simms family is very racist, and that a relationship with him might lead to trouble.
The day after Christmas, Papa doled out the punishment to the children for defying his rules and going to the Wallace store. That afternoon, Mr. Jamison came to visit. He came with documents to legally transfer ownership of the farm to Papa Logan and Uncle Hammer from Big Ma. Mr. Jamison also agrees to back credit for the families that are boycotting the Wallace’s. He says: “my wife and I discussed it fully. We realize what could happen…But I’m just wondering if you do. Besides the fact that a number of white folks around here resent this land you’ve got and your independent attitude, there’s Harlan Granger. Now I’ve know Harlan all my life, and he’s not going to like this.”
I really like the character of Jamison. In the haze of the Deep South, he seems to truly understand equality. He also realizes that Granger wants no part of it! Soon, Papa, Uncle Hammer, and Morrison were off to Vicksburg to pick up a wagon full of supplies that folks had ordered.
Harlan Granger soon comes to visit the Logan’s. After a tense tet-a-tet with Uncle Hammer, then Papa Logan, Granger leaves after laying down the gauntlet: “Mr. Joe Higgins up at First National told me that he couldn’t hardly honor a loan to folks who go around stirring up a lot of bad feelings in the community—“
That’s right! Harlan Granger thinks that he can retain his power, acquire more land, and continue his reign of racism by threatening to foreclose on the Logan property. It is hard not to see parallels between what is currently happening in the United State now and what was occurring during the Great Depression. Sure, we have come a long way…but where have we ended up? Would the Logan family have been “Occupying Vicksburg?”
Uncle Hammer departs for the North on New Year’s Day. Cassie tries to be as accommodating to Lillian Jean Simms as she can. What were Cassie’s intentions in trying to be friendly to Lillian Jean? She tries to explain the “differences” between them to a very uninterested Lillian Jean. She pleases Lillian Jean by carrying her books to school and acting as her “slave.” Until one day, when Cassie’s plan came to completion. Cassie asked Lillian Jean into the woods and then unleashed a massive beating on her. She pinned her, pulled her hair, and forced her to apologize for the injustice in Strawberry.
However, injustice rears its ugly head again, when Granger and other members of the board of education come to Mama Logan’s classroom. They discover that she has altered the textbooks (really, she just tried to repair them) and that is she is teaching the truth and not from some white, Anglo-Saxon written textbook. Ultimately, she is fired from her position. Devastated, Mama did have the support of Papa and the rest of the family. Little Willie Wiggins soon reveals to Stacey that it was T.J. that told one of the Wallace brothers about Mama Logan altering the textbooks. The Logan children stand with the family, and turn their back on T.J. Avery.
Threats come as the Spring and Summer months follow. Cassie finds out from Jeremy that T.J. has been hanging out with the Simms brothers. Families came to Papa Logan to tell him that Mr. Granger and other white land owners are threatening not to pay workers a fair wage if they don’t stop shopping from Vicksburg and don’t start purchasing from the Wallace’s. On a trip to Vicksburg, Papa Logan, Morrison, and Stacey are rushed by a group of white men. Although Morrison fights them off, Papa is left with a broken leg, only adding to the Logan’s financial turmoil. In all of this chaos, we see Stacey emerging, not even thirteen yet, as a young man capable of handling tumultuous situations.
On a trip to the Wiggins, Morrison takes the children with him. On the return home, Kaleb Wallace pulls his truck into the middle of the road barring Morrison and the Logan children’s wagon from passing.
“Mr. Morrison circled the truck, studying it closely. Then he returned to its front and, bending at the knees with his back against the grill, he positioned his large hands beneath the bumper. Slowly, his muscles flexing tightly against his thin shirt and the seat popping off his skin like oil on water, he lifted the truck in one fluid, powerful motion until the front was several inches off the ground and slowly walked it to the left of the road, where he set id down as gently as a sleeping child.”
I love Papa Logan’s response to Mama Logan about what the repercussions of Morrison’s actions might be…He says just let it be!
“The bank called up the note.” Ah…the words I didn’t want to see in this book! Papa Logan has to inform Uncle Hammer, who sells his car to get the money to pay off the loan. During the last day of the August revival at the Great Faith Church, T.J. approaches the Logan children who are not impressed with his friendship with the Simms brothers. They immediately turn their back on T.J. Although he seems hurt, he follows the Simms brothers.
CLIMAX: However, a beaten T.J. soon ends up at the Logan’s doorstep. A huge thunderstorm looms in the background. T.J. tells the Logan children that he has been to Strawberry with the Simms brothers. They went to buy a pistol, but when the store was not open, the broke in and robbed it. In this breaking and entering, they managed to wake Mr. Barnett and beat him up. The Simms brothers had stocking over their faces, while T.J. did not. The Logan children decide to help T.J. get to his home. After returning to his house, T.J., his family, and the Logan children are bum-rushed by an anger white mob. The crowd descends, looking for the black children they think are responsible for the break-in at Barnett’s. Mr. Jamison quickly shows up to try to contain the crowd. But, the blood-thirsty group not only wants them, but Papa Logan and Morrison. Cassie, Christopher-John, and Little Man race to the Logan farm. Cassie informs the family of what is going on at the Avery’s. Papa Logan and Morrison leave to go to the Avery’s, both packing heat.
Mama Logan notices that the cotton fields are on fire. Her and Big Ma try to fight the flames. Cassie and Little Man are woken up by Jeremy, who informs them that the fire has been subdued. Cassie sees that both black and white people are fighting the fire. Cassie, as is her nature, questions the events that have happened. But, she soon realizes that Papa is the one who is responsible for the fire.