The Collected Works of Mildred D. Taylor (Yirgalem 1965–67)
Reviewed by Janet Lee, (Emdeber, 1974-76)
As I was visiting the exhibits at a major library conference, I chanced upon promotional material announcing the 40th anniversary of the publication of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Ethiopia RPCV Mildred Taylor. Forty years.
I am not a children’s librarian nor am I a school librarian, but I have been touched by her work. How could one not be by her award-winning books? A Newbery. The Coretta Scott King Award (three times). The Christopher Award. The Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Award. The inaugural NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature (University of Oklahoma).
I was also aware of the fact that Mildred (known as Millie by some of her Peace Corps colleagues) served in Yirgalem, from 1965–67. She taught English, as many of us did at that time, in a small rural school. Little did her students know who stood before them.
On January 10th, I posted a note on the E&E RPCV Facebook page:
Some of the current Volunteers commented that although they had read her books, they were unaware that she had served in Ethiopia. We need to change that! In celebration of the 40th anniversary of “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” I would like to pay tribute to one of the great writers to come out of Peace Corps Ethiopia or all of Peace Corps for that matter.
Who is Mildred D. Taylor?
Mildred Taylor was born in Jackson, MS in 1943 and is the daughter of Wilbert Lee and Deletha Marie Taylor. Although born in the segregated south, she grew up in Ohio having moved north at the age of three months. She graduated with a BA in English from the University of Toledo in 1965, and an MA from the University of Colorado in 1969. She served in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia from 1965 to 1967 and was a Peace Corps recruiter from 1967 to 1969. She made a living as a proofreader during the early stages of her writing career.
But those are facts. To begin to know Mildred Taylor, one must read her books and become immersed in the lives of the characters whom she portrays in the series of books about the Logan family, first made known in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Call. Despite her prominence as an author, she seems to be a very private person. I chanced upon a video interview produced in 1988 and distributed by the Films for Humanities in 2004. I located a VHS copy through interlibrary loan and then had to hunt down a video recorder that still played VHS. Through this interview, the viewer gets a sense of the importance of stories, memories, and family in the books that have made her so well-known and made a mark on literary history.
Her family moved north when she was barely three months old after a racial incident against her father prompted the move. But the ties to the family in the South led her family on frequent visits back home. “Picnics” of sweet potato pie and fried chicken delighted her and her sister as they traveled overland on these twenty-hour treks. Only years later did they realize that their parents were protecting them from racist remarks and humiliation as they would be denied access to restaurants and hotels. These memories were counter balanced by the love and care of her extended family who sheltered the children from the overt racism and segregation practiced in the neighboring towns.
Mildred became part of a “story-telling chain,” as she sat transfixed on the stories her father told. Many of the stories were humorous; others were tragic and told with an element of pathos. There was a sense of history in those stories that were told with gusto and great acting skills and she could visualize her ancestors as she stepped back in time. These stories formed a history of the U.S. and the South that she had not learned in school, a history that she could expand upon by becoming a written storyteller herself.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Call, the winner of the Newbery Medal in 1977, is the story of the Logan family as seen through the eyes of young Cassie, the daughter of Mary and David Logan, a black landowner and cotton farmer who subsidized his income by working on the railroad. The story, set in the depression era of the 1930s in the segregated South, tells of the joys and struggles of an African-American family. Taylor does not sugar-coat the day-to-day experiences of the family, nor does she describe some of the brutality in overly graphic detail. She does use language that would seem offensive today. She also describes what many history books do not: a successful black landowner, a tight-knit family with hopes and dreams for their children, an educated school teacher, a relative who served in the military, and the uncle who prospered and is the proud owner of a late-model car.
In the video interview, Taylor does relate that these characters were fashioned after her family members. David Logan, the father, was reminiscent of her grandfather, a railroad man. Mary Logan took after her grandmother, an outspoken teacher and role model. Cassie’s brother Stacey took on the features of her father, and Cassie was a more outgoing expression of Mildred herself. In so doing, the stories within each of the books in the series take on an authenticity that both make them believable, but also spurs the imagination. The reader cannot but help but identify with the characters and be captivated by the stories, no matter their ages.
Mildred’s titles include:
Song of the Trees, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, 1975, 2003
Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry, 1976, reprinted 25th edition 2001, reprinted 40th edition, 2016
The Friendship, 1987, 1998
The Gold Cadillac, 1987
The Road to Memphis, 1990
Mississippi Bridge, 1990
The Well: David’s Story, 1995, 1998
The Land, 2001
If you have never read one of her books, now is the time. If you read them for school or as a teen, it is time to read them again and appreciate the historical context in which they were written and the lessons that can still be gleaned today.
Some interviews with Mildred D. Taylor that can be read on the Internet:
Click on the book cover, or the bold book title to order books mentioned above from Amazon, and Ethiopia & Eritrea RPCVs, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance.
End of Issue 23 — April 2016