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“The Land” by Mildred D. Taylor

by Rebecca Ripperton
July 8, 2019

The Land, first published in 2001, is the powerful prequel to the other Logan family books (Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; Let the Circle Be Unbroken; The Road to Memphis; and four other short novellas). The book is set shortly after the end of the Civil War, and it follows Cassie’s grandfather, Paul-Edward (or sometimes simply Paul), from childhood through the early years of his manhood. Like Mildred Taylor’s other books, The Land, has been received with critical acclaim, and rightfully so. Taylor was the 2002 Coretta Scott King Awards Author Winner in 2002, making Taylor a four-time Author Winner, as well as a two-time Author Honor recipient. Taylor also received the Newbery Medal for “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” in 1977. While book awards are not necessarily an indication of literary merit, we did want to note these awards because perhaps no living children’s book author deserves more recognition and admiration than Mildred Taylor.

Taylor’s writing marries historical fiction with autobiographical stories passed down to her by her father, uncles, and other family members. The Land begins with a “Note to the Reader” that speaks both to the part that Mildred Taylor’s own family played in writing these stories, and to the difficulty of the subject matter and the language used in describing it.  

“All of my books are based on stories told by my family, and on the history of the United States. In my writing I have attempted to be true to those stories and the history. I have included characters, incidents, and language that present life as it was in many parts of the United States before the Civil Rights Movement. Although there are those who wish to ban my books because I have used language that is painful, I have chosen to use the language that was spoken during the period, for I refuse to whitewash history. The language was painful and life was painful for many African Americans, including my family.

I remember the pain.

Since writing my first book, Song of the Trees, it has been my wish to have readers walk in the shoes of the Logan family, who are based on my family, and to feel what they felt. It has been my wish that by understanding this family and what they endured, there would be a further understanding of what millions of families endured, and there would also be a further understanding of why there was a Civil Rights Movement, a movement that changed our nation.”

The language of this book is indeed painful, as is the experience of reading Mildred Taylor’s other novels. However that pain was one that so many African American children – those born into slavery and those born almost a hundred years after slavery’s abolition – did not have the privilege of avoiding. We agree with Taylor that it is our collective duty as human beings to learn about and acknowledge the physical and psychological harm done to those children and their families, no matter how much discomfort we may experience during the process.

As a result, we highly recommend reading Mildred Taylor's books in a group setting, whether that be at home as a family or in a classroom where they may be discussed. These are hard books to read, and being able to talk about them with others is essential to processing their contents.

The Land is appropriate for children ages 12 and up, but should by no means be limited to adolescents. Adults stand to gain just as much, if not more, from this book as younger readers do.

Paul-Edward’s family

As is true for most children, Paul-Edward’s family life shapes his character, as well as his understanding of his place in the world. However, Paul’s family is not like other African American families that live nearby. He is the son of a black woman, and a white man and former slave owner. More remarkable still is the fact that his white father, Mister Edward Logan, not only recognizes his paternity, but also takes care of Paul as he does his other sons.

Before the Civil War, Edward Logan had taken Paul’s mother as his “colored woman” when she was still enslaved to him and she bore two of his children: Paul and his older sister Cassie. Edward Logan also had a white wife who died shortly after giving birth to a son around the same time that Paul’s mother gave birth to him. As a result, Paul has three white brothers and one biracial sister as siblings.

Like their father, Paul-Edward’s brothers recognize Paul and Cassie as their siblings and call them their own blood. As children, their activities and upbringings are all similar, although never truly the same. Paul’s father teaches him to read and write and requires that his brothers share their school lessons with Paul in Georgia, a place that had, like most southern states, previously passed anti-literacy laws for slaves during the decades leading up to the Civil War.

But as Paul begins to approach adolescence, his vision of his family as a single unit begins to disintegrate. His father sends him to school in Macon to learn woodworking so that he has a trade to sustain him throughout his life; Paul’s brother Robert, however, is sent to a different kind of school, much to the sorrow of both boys. But the boys grow apart, and it is clear that Robert and Paul can no longer enjoy the same relationship they once did.

Paul also struggles to accept that he is not welcome in his father’s house when other white families come to dinner, and to come to terms with the fact that his mother originally had no choice in her relationship with his father. After experiencing what feels like a betrayal at the hands of one of his brothers, Paul has a difficult conversation with his mother about all of these topics, where she tells him of her love for his father and makes it clear that she has had the choice to leave since slaves were emancipated but has elected to stay. 

Eventually, after realizing the difference between his brothers and himself in a humiliating manner, Paul runs away. He is accompanied by another African American boy — Mitchell — with whom he has been allied since childhood, and after traveling about for work, they finally end up in the area of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Paul’s loneliness

As it is evident that he is of biracial heritage, white and black people alike shun Paul-Edward. Other African American boys persecute him up for looking and “acting” too white, and white people reject him for looking too black. He is disparagingly called a “white n-----” by both parties. Besides his brothers and sister, Paul really doesn’t have friends as a child. He is quiet and introspective by nature, and spends a good deal of time reading — a pastime that does nothing to ingratiate him with neighboring black children, who take this as a sign that he believes himself to be superior to them. Eventually Paul forms an unlikely alliance with the most menacing of these boys, Mitchell, with Mitchell agreeing to stop hurting Paul in exchange for Paul teaching him to read and write. Gradually, over many years of this alliance, the two become best friends, not so much because of desire, but out of circumstance and necessity.

Still, even into his adulthood with Mitchell as an increasingly close friend, Paul is alone. He is unlike the men he works with in the turpentine or logging camps after he runs away, and he continues to be despised and mistrusted by people of both races. Paul-Edward is also set apart from others in his desire to someday own his own land. As an adult, Paul is alienated from his entire family except for his sister Cassie, to whom he writes regularly and his friend, Mitchell. As a result, he throws himself completely into his work and vision for the future.

The desire to own land

Paul grew up cherishing his father’s land and as a child, he expected to stay there always. But once he begins to better understand the reality of his relationship with white men, he becomes determined to find land of his own. Throughout all of his years of woodworking, working in various camps, and horse-racing, Paul saves his money carefully in a bank in New Orleans so that when the time comes, he will be able to put it to good use. When he and Mitchell first arrive in Mississippi, Paul finds an area of land that he falls in love with and asks about purchasing. The land isn’t for sale at that point in time, but the owner promises to let him know if he ever decides to sell.

In the meantime, Paul-Edward strikes a bargain with a white man by the name of Filmore Granger to log forty acres of his land in exchange for the property rights. This work is grueling, and it is all Mitchell and Paul can do to keep up, even with the help of some additional hired hands. But it quickly becomes essential for Paul to earn the rights to the Granger land, as Paul uses it in bargaining for several hundred acres of the land that he originally wanted. Paul is required to make steep monthly payments and a sizable down payment that he risks forfeiting if he cannot come up with the full sum of money in time. Paul gambles with everything he has to purchase The Land, but faces one cruel obstacle after another in his quest to gain its title.

Caroline

A girl named Caroline comes into Paul’s life unexpectedly, and the part she ultimately plays in his life is unexpected, as well. Paul admires her boldness, the way she carries herself, and her determination to do what’s right. He eventually develops a close relationship with her family and even takes on her younger brother, Nathan, as a woodworking apprentice and helper on the 40-acre project. Paul feels at home among her parents and siblings in a way that he has not since he was with his own mother and sister back in Georgia. Although Paul plans to ask her father to court her, her heart has already been spoken for and he must resign himself to that fact.

There are many “plot twists” within the story, but those involving Caroline are worth saving, so we won’t say much more other than the fact that her character is a shining light both within the book, and within Paul’s life. Her portions are definitely something to look forward to!

Discussion questions

  • What drives Paul-Edward’s desire to own land? How do Paul-Edward’s parents each prepare him for land ownership in their own way?
  • Remembering that both Paul-Edward and Caroline’s mother Rachel are at some point forbidden to use their given names, what significance do names have to their owners? What do you take away from someone when you take away their name?
  • What does it mean to be a brother? In what ways do Paul-Edward’s biological brothers and friend Mitchell meet, or fail to meet, those criteria?
  • What lesson(s) does Paul learn from each of his parents? What lesson(s) does he take from their shared relationship, and how do his reflections on their relationship influence his decision-making as a young man and adult?
  • How and why does Mitchell change after meeting Caroline? 
  • Is the lesson that Paul-Edward’s father tries to beat into him after his encounter with the Waverly brothers and the lesson that Paul-Edward actually learns the same? If not, how do they differ?

Share your experience

Have you ever read The Land or any other book by Mildred Taylor? What was your experience of reading it?

We’ll also be writing about the Roll of Thunder trilogy soon, so be on the look out for more about the Logan family in the upcoming weeks!

Purchase Books at Amazon

The Land
 by Mildred D. Taylor

7

Carol Ryrie Brink’s “Caddie Woodlawn”

by Rebecca Ripperton
June 4, 2019

Caddie Woodlawn is a chapter book for high-spirited and adventure-loving children. The book is uproariously funny at times, but also contains its fair share of tender moments. It centers on a large pioneering family living in Western Wisconsin at the time of the Civil War. Caddie is 11 years old in the story, and has six other siblings, both older and younger.

The story is one that boys and girls will enjoy equally. Caddie herself is a tomboy, and runs rampant with her brothers, Tom and Warren, taking equal part in their adventures and often leading them. Of all the children, she is the one her Uncle Edmund selects to take pigeon hunting, and it is also Caddie who becomes an apprentice clock smith under her father’s direction.

Caddie’s upbringing is unusual in that her parents elected to raise her “as a boy.” When the family first moved west from Boston, both she and her sister Mary were frail and of a delicate constitution. After Mary died, Caddie’s father – John – begged Caddie’s mother to let him raise Caddie as a boy in order to make her strong enough to survive the brutal conditions of rural Wisconsin. Caddie’s mother agreed, and so Caddie was not raised “to be a lady” like her older sister Clara; she was instead given license to run out of doors, hunt with her brothers, and compete with them in all their games.

Becoming a lady

As Caddie grows older, she faces increasing pressure from her mother and from others outside the family to begin behaving like a little lady – a prospect Caddie dreads. She is through and through her father’s daughter and loves the independence afforded to her. This issue of becoming a lady is brought up continually throughout the entire story, with Caddie eventually realizing that there are aspects of being a lady that are more advantageous than she realized. She also discovers that she need not give up all her freedom, but that women have additional strengths that many men do not.

But, by the time that Caddie decides she is ready to learn more about quilting and housework, she and brothers have become so intertwined, that they decide they want to learn to do housework, too!

Relationships with Native Americans

As settlers, the Woodlawn family and their pioneer neighbors have frequent encounters with Native Americans. One Native American in particular – Indian John – develops a strong relationship with the Woodlawn family, and with Caddie especially.  When he goes away for a time, Caddie is given charge of his dog and his father’s scalp belt – a relic that the Woodlawn children present to their peers in an enterprising and financially rewarding scheme.

Parents should be aware, however, that Native Americans are frequently referred to as “savages” in the story, and that the interracial children of a white man and Native American woman are sometimes called “half-breeds.” The issue of irrational fear of Native Americans by white settlers is addressed in the book, with the author clearly defending the position that the settlers were wrongly xenophobic, but the language used to describe Native Americans is still reflective of older attitudes and prejudices. Accordingly, parents may want to read these sections of the book in advance in order to be prepared to discuss them with their children.

Memorable vignettes

This book is filled with memorable episodes that set our family howling when we read it aloud together, years ago. Poor Warren’s struggle to memorize his poem of “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” had us all in tears and left us a very unusual aphorism about chicken fricassee that I don’t think any of us will ever be able to forget. Cousin Annabelle from Boston’s visit to the Woodlawn family is similarly memorable, with all 88 of her buttons befalling an unfortunate fate at the hands of the Woodlawn’s sheep. Caddie herself has quite a temper and incites a stand off at the schoolhouse between the school teacher and the oafish Obadiah Jones by bringing a ruler down on Obadiah’s legs which he had ungraciously propped upon a desk.

The takeaway

This book is set earlier than Little Britches, but young readers who enjoyed that series will likely enjoy Caddie Woodlawn as well (and vice versa). It is intended for children ages 8-12 and makes for a boisterous family read-aloud. Young readers will also be glad to discover that Carol Ryrie Brink followed Caddie Woodlawn with a similarly delightful sequel – Caddie Woodlawn’s Family (originally published as Magical Melons).

Share your experience!

Have you ever read Caddie Woodlawn or any other book by Carol Ryrie Brink? What did you or your children think of it? Do you remember any of the comedic episodes that we mentioned here, or have another favorite episode that we omitted? Please let us know in a comment below! We always enjoy hearing from readers.

Purchase Books at Amazon

Caddie Woodlawn
by Carol Ryrie Brink

Caddie Woodlawn's Family
by Carol Ryrie Brink

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