by Rebecca Ripperton
August 15, 2019
Earlier this summer, we wrote about a book called The Land. Although the last published of all Mildred D. Taylor’s books, The Land is technically the first of the six books that compose the Logan Family Saga. The Saga also contains three other full-length novels that are set after The Land, and two novellas. In this post, we’re focusing on those three full-length novels: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976), Let the Circle Be Unbroken (1981), and The Road to Memphis (1992). These books all follow Paul-Edward Logan’s young grand-daughter, Cassie Logan, and her immediate family members. Although Paul-Edward has passed away, Cassie, her mother and father, three brothers, and Big Ma (Paul-Edward’s cherished wife) all still live on the land that Paul-Edward and Caroline fought so hard to obtain decades earlier.
Of all the Mildred Taylor books, it is these three books that are best known to modern readers, and for excellent reason: Cassie and her siblings are the sort of protagonists that every young reader longs for in a novel – precocious, strong-willed, and daring.
As in The Land, the conflicts that arise in these books are primarily centered on issues of race. Cassie and her family are the direct descendants of slaves and live on 400 acres of property that they own themselves, a rare accomplishment at the time. However, despite owning their own land, the family continues to struggle to protect it, and continues to fight to protect their children from discrimination and even danger.
One of the most moving aspects of this series is observing how these encounters affect the children. Cassie and one of her brothers, Little Man, have a particularly hard time coming to grips with the ways in which they are treated differently than their white peers, and refuse to accept the racial injustices they routinely encounter, often at a significant cost to themselves and their family. Another theme that is shared between these books and The Land is that of friendship and the near impossibility of white and black people sustaining relationships of any kind with one another. The character Jeremy Simms perhaps best illustrates this issue, becoming simultaneously a hero and a pariah in the beginning of The Road to Memphis.
We’ve given a brief overview of each book here, and just as we did in our post on The Land, we’ve added discussion questions about the aforementioned issues as well as a handful of others at the end of the post, so be sure to take a look at those, as well!
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is Mildred Taylor’s Newbery-winning introduction to Cassie Logan and her family. Cassie lives in a multi-generational home with her older brother, Stacy, and two younger brothers, Christopher and Little Man, Mary and David (her mother and father), and Big Ma on the acreage that Paul-Edward bought years earlier in The Land. Mary is a school-teacher, and teaches at the same school where her children are students, while David farms the homestead and also works on the railroad in Louisiana during a portion of the year.
The book opens with an account of “night men” and references to three black men being burned at the hands of some of their own neighbors. It is clear from this point onward that there is significant racial unrest in the community, and David quickly returns home from the railroad with a friend, Mr. Morrison, who remains behind on the land in order to protect the family in David's absence.
Mary and David are adamant that their children not visit places in town where they would interact with the men (and sort of men) who were responsible for the burnings, most notably the Wallace store. T.J. Avery, Stacy’s best friend, however, feels no such compunction himself and begins spending an increasing amount of time both at the Wallace store and with the Simms brothers who are notoriously cruel and disrespectful toward black people. Stacy watches as his friend T.J. follows a sharp downward trajectory, which culminates in T.J.'s arrest and some very serious accusations levied against him. In the meantime, however, the Logans have organized a boycott of the Wallace store among the African-American community, which leads to serious trouble for their family in more ways than one.
Among the most powerful scenes in this book are Cassie and Little Man’s personal encounters with serious racial injustice and their struggle to accept the lesser treatment that is so often meted out to them. Jeremy Simms is another notable figure in this book, and a character who is quietly impactful throughout the series.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is best suited for readers ages 10 and up, and makes for an excellent family or classroom read-aloud.
In Let the Circle Be Unbroken, T.J. must face the consequences of his ill-advised associations with the Simms brothers. Here we see T.J. standing trial, with Mr. Wade Jamison (whom careful readers will also remember from The Land) as his defense attorney. After T.J.’s trial is finished, Stacy steals away from his family in the dead of night to look for work outside of town. The children’s father, David, has been traveling for work in order to meet their expenses, and Stacy is determined to contribute to the family, as well, but knows his parents will not approve of his working on a plantation or in a camp instead of being in school. The family and Mr. Jamison go to extraordinary lengths to search for Stacy and bring him home, but his whereabouts continue to elude them, much to their fear and sorrow.
During this time, Cassie’s cousin, Suzella, comes to stay with the family, with Cassie struggling to accept her presence in the home. Suzella’s presence is further complicated because she has a black father (Mary’s brother) and a white mother, and she not only easily passes for being a young white woman, but she seems to prefer doing so. Cassie in particular does not approve of this decision, while also fearing that the ever-charming Suzella will supplant her.
Finally, Cassie and her mother help one of their elderly neighbors, Mrs. Lee Annie prepare to take a voting test, despite the fact that black people in their area were neither welcomed nor accepted as voters. However, Mrs. Lee Annie is determined to at least attempt the voting test, both on principle and as an example to others, so Mary and Cassie reluctantly agree to help her. In order to prepare, Mrs. Lee Annie essentially memorizes the entire U.S. Constitution, and internalizes its spirit as well as its letter. However, whether or not she is permitted to vote remains to be seen!
Let the Circle Be Unbroken is recommended for readers ages 10 and up, although older readers will certainly still find this book to be highly engaging. However, like all of Mildred Taylor's books, this is one we recommend reading aloud or in a discussion setting. Parents may also want to read these books ahead of time in order to be prepared for the discussions and questions that these stories may spark.
In The Road to Memphis, the final book of the saga, Cassie is away at high school in Jackson, Mississippi, and is looking into applying to colleges. Her particular interest lies in studying law, which she has been reading about both extensively and of her own accord. Her older brother Stacy and their close friend Moe are also living in Jackson, where they work in a factory alongside their friend Little Willie. Although the Logan children have been in dangerous situations before, they are now in the unusual position of protecting the life of their close friend, Moe, who must disappear into the North in order to survive after a terrible encounter he has with Jeremy Simms’ cousins. The fact that the Logans and their friends are more or less on their own between Jackson and Memphis adds to the somber tone of the novel; David and Mary are no longer able to protect their children, and Cassie, Stacy, and their friends must defend themselves as best they can.
I would argue that this particular book is more mature than the others, but not necessarily because its storyline or events are more complicated or painful than those of earlier books. Rather, relationships are given a stronger focus in this book and Cassie herself is conflicted over her relationship with Moe, who seems to feel something more for her than she feels for him, and later conflicted over another man who assists them in Memphis. There is also simply more ambiguity here about the fate of the characters we have grown to love with all our hearts, and that fact alone can be hard to accept. But in all, we see Stacy and Cassie come into their own as the strong man and woman their parents raised them to become.
Like the other two books, The Road to Memphis is recommended for readers ages 10 and up. Please see our comments on the age recommendation for Let the Circle Be Unbroken for further guidance about ages.
We quoted Mildred Taylor’s “Note to the Reader” from The Land at the beginning of our post on that book, and in preparing to write this post, I came across an interview she gave to The Brown Bookshelf in 2008. I wanted to include a portion of that interview here, as well, about criticism that Mildred Taylor has garnered in recent years. She speaks to the matter far more eloquently and incisively than we would ever be able to, and it felt appropriate to bookend our posts with her own words.
“Recently [...] there has been a backlash of parents, minority parents included, and educators who do not want children to read books such as mine. Some of the people who voice these opinions do not like the “n” word being used, because they believe it brings too much pain to a child reading such a word.
But how can readers understand the true history of the past or the need for a civil rights movement unless they have begun to understand the pain of those who suffered through slavery, discrimination, and segregation? How can readers feel the pain if I pretty up the way things were?
What I least like to do is write down words that hurt. I cringe at the thought of any child being hurt by my words, but as much as it hurts me to write words of pain, I know that they must be written, for they are truthful words about the time I write.
They are painful to me to write and they are painful to those who read them, but they are needed for the full understanding of what life was like for African-Americans before the Civil Rights Movement.
I remember what it was like. I remember the pain of what life was like and I want others to recognize that pain in order for all generations to appreciate why there was a Civil Rights Movement and to appreciate the great freedom of rights and opportunities we enjoy today.”
— Mildred D. Taylor. Interview with The Brown Bookshelf, Feb. 2008. Online.
What about you all? Do you have prior experience with Mildred Taylor's books, or memories of reading them in the past? What discussions questions would you add to our list? Please share your thoughts and memories with us in a comment below!
by Rebecca Ripperton
July 30, 2019
If you’ve ever read any of J.D. Salinger’s books or stories about the Glass family, you’ll no doubt find many similarities between those characters and the four Melendy children. (One notable distinction, however, is that the Glass children are all older than the Melendys, and are more fully developed and intellectually independent characters as a result.) The Melendy offspring range in age from 6 to 13 and appropriately, these books are ideal for readers 8 through 12. And for anyone looking for their next book to enjoy as a family, this series makes for an especially lively read aloud experience!
The Melendy gang is full of character and charm. The family is composed of four children – Rush, Mona, Randy (short for Miranda), Oliver, and father. Joining them are Cuffy, the Melendy’s housekeeper and surrogate mother, and Willy, the family’s handyman. Mr. Melendy is a professor, who travels regularly to give lectures, and later becomes employed by the government to do confidential work during WWII. Sadly, the children’s mother is deceased and not often referred to.
Mona, age 13, aspires to be an actress, and is known by her family for reciting relevant passages from Shakespeare whenever an opportunity arises. Rush, age 12, is a pianist and zealous composer, and although not formally sanctioned, serves as leader to his three siblings. 10-year old Randy is perhaps the character into whom the reader is offered the most insight, as she is modeled upon author Elizabeth Enright herself. Randy is a dancer, and also loves to paint; of all the children she is perhaps the most imaginative and romantic. Lastly, Oliver, the youngest, is a mere 6 years old, but has a mind and interests of his own. Oliver is fascinated with nature in all its forms, and delights in erasing the distinction between the outside world and the inside of his bedroom (much to Cuffy’s horror and chagrin).
Although born in the Midwest, Elizabeth Enright spent her formative years living in New York City. Like Randy, Elizabeth Enright was once an aspiring dancer and is even said to have studied under Martha Graham for a period of time, though dancing never became her career. She received further education from studying at Parsons School of Design and The Art Students League of New York. Both of Elizabeth’s parents were professional illustrators, and she soon followed suit, working both as a children’s book illustrator and author early on. Her focus quickly shifted toward writing, however.
Among the books Enright is most famous for are Gone Away Lake and Thimble Summer. She received the Newbery Medal in 1939 for Thimble Summer, and the distinction of being named author of a Newbery Honor book for Gone Away Lake in 1958. Enright even reviewed children’s books for the New York Times throughout her career! In addition to penning books for younger readers, she is also a noted author of short stories for adults, with numerous stories published in magazines such as The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and the Saturday Evening Post, as well as stories included in six different O. Henry award collections.
Lastly, readers may be interested to learn that Elizabeth Enright is the niece of famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Elizabeth’s mother, originally named Maginel Wright, became Maginel Wright Enright after her marriage to Elizabeth’s father, Walter J. Enright. Accordingly, Elizabeth’s full name at birth was Elizabeth Wright Enright. (Not nearly as bad as William Carlos Williams, or Holling Clancy Holling, but close!)
While living in New York City, the premise for “The Saturdays” is born one unusually dull weekend. The children collectively decide to each turn all of their allowance over to one sibling each week, so that instead of having 50 cents (or 10 cents, in Oliver’s case) for the week, each has a whopping $1.60 to spend once a month on a grand adventure. Rush, for example, as an avid pianist and composer, uses his money to go to the opera. Randy spends the afternoon at an art museum, and forms a lifelong friendship with the wonderful Mrs. Oliphant. Even Oliver participates, although on his Saturday, he surreptitiously escapes to the circus by himself and nearly frightens the whole family out of their wits.
This first book serves as a delightful reminder of the magic that Saturdays can bring, especially to schoolchildren. The emphasis here is on engagement with the arts, as well as independent adventure. This book is also interesting in that the Melendy children must each choose their special Saturday activity for themselves, with the understanding that their adventure will be both extraordinary and enriching. In addition to choosing the activity, each is required to undertake the responsibility of figuring out all of the logistics of organizing their adventure like purchasing a ticket or finding transportation. (6-year-old Oliver is the exception here – he was supposed to take Cuffy, but opted instead to go rogue.) Of the three, Mona is the only one who doesn’t spend her money in a satisfactory manner, but that experience was educational for the whole family and no doubt beneficial for Mona.
In the second book of the series, the Melendy family moves to an unusual home in the countryside near New York, so called “The Four-Story Mistake” because its builders astonishingly forgot to include a fourth floor! The house is an unusual piece of architecture, and although the children are at first sad to leave the city, they soon become enchanted with their new home. The Four-Story Mistake itself has plenty of character, as well as plenty of nooks and crannies for the children to explore. The surrounding land is similarly full of hidden treasures, complete with forests, flowered meadows, rivers, caves, etc., affording the children ample opportunity to play out of doors. In this book, Oliver discovers a secret basement room full of musty marvels, Randy discovers a precious prize of her own, and all of the children together uncover an astonishing mystery about their home, as well as its former occupants. Somehow the Melendys even find themselves the new owners of a pet alligator!
By this time, the second World War has broken out, and the children are going around from house to house to harvest whatever scrap metal their neighbors might be willing to donate. This exercise introduces the four Melendys to a wide variety of neighbors – some delightful, like the charming old bachelor Mr. Titus whose twin loves are fishing and baking. (Naturally, these interests greatly endear Mr. Titus to Oliver, who soon becomes Mr. Titus’ loyal disciple, and single greatest source of assistance in disposing of the countless cakes that Mr. Titus bakes each week.) The children are also introduced to much more ominous neighbors like the dreadful Oren Meeker, whose young relative Mark bears the brunt of his ire.
By this point, both Mona and Rush, the two eldest children, are working part-time outside of the home, in addition to going to school. Mona plays a recurring character on a radio drama, and Rush gives piano lessons to district schoolchildren. But, the best thing that the children bring home in this book is not the money they gladly contribute to the family coffer, nor the scrap metal for the war, but a wonderful new addition to the family.
The last book, “Spiderweb for Two: A Melendy Maze,” takes place when Rush, Mona, and their adopted brother have all gone away to school. Randy and Oliver are more or less left alone with Cuffy and Willy, as father has been traveling for work more and more frequently. The older children’s absence is sorely felt, and both Oliver and Randy begin to slip into a state of ennui.
But something strange soon begins to happen. An unknown person writing in an unknown hand leaves riddles for Randy and Oliver, leading them on an epic treasure hunt that takes place throughout the remainder of the school year. Each clue leads them to another riddle, and the children work frantically to crack each one as quickly as they can, without giving Cuffy or Willy cause for suspicion. At the end of their journey, Randy and Oliver are greeted with a surprise that neither expected, but that both are overjoyed by.
In all, this is a light-hearted and whimsical series that young readers have adored for decades. The books are incredibly well penned, with exquisite descriptions of the children’s sensory experiences and stories that are chock-full of adventure and excitement. Even though the Melendy children have lost their mother and several of the books take place with World War II as a backdrop, Enright maintains a sense of levity throughout the series. Although the children volunteer in war relief efforts, Enright’s tone never becomes somber in the way that many other children’s books from that time do. However, because these books are so whimsical and idyllic, the series can be a good one to interleave with more somber or emotionally weighty reads like the Mildred Taylor books.
Did you ever read The Saturdays or any of Elizabeth Enright's other books as a child? What about to your children? If so, what do you remember? Did the Melendy family ever inspire you to go on an independent weekend adventure of your own?
Please let us know in a comment below!