Last weekend I went into a bookshop chain and saw copies of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman arrayed on a table just inside the door, waiting to be lifted by the hordes of Christmas shoppers anxious to please bookish friends and relatives this year. There has been a lot of disappointed, indignant, or outraged talk recently about Go Set a Watchman – the sequel to Lee’s world-famous To Kill a Mockingbird. The build-up to this mysterious new novel seems to have resulted only in frustration for many Lee fans, with The Guardian dismissing Lee’s 1950s debut as ‘a literary curiosity’. Perhaps a better companion novel for Mockingbird is the lesser-known bildungsroman by Mildred Taylor: Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry (1976). In the UK at least, Taylor’s coming-of-age story about Mississippi life during the Great Depression is unfairly eclipsed by Lee’s masterpiece.
Born almost 20 years after Lee (in 1943), Taylor was inspired by a tradition of oral story-telling and she partially fictionalised her family’s history in Roll of Thunder. This book records and represents a history which, Taylor explains, ‘was not then written in books but one passed from generation to generation on the steps of moonlit porches … , a history of great-grandparents and of slavery and of the days following slavery; of those who lived still not free, yet who would not let their spirits be enslaved’.
Like Lee, Taylor focuses on the life of a young girl who is struggling to understand the social mores and injustices she sees around her. Unlike Scout, Taylor’s heroine Cassie is black and her position in mid-century Mississippi society is consequently precarious. Although her family are fortunate enough to own their land, sandwiched between the much larger plantations of the local gentry, they struggle to hold on to it whilst making tentative steps towards fighting for their rights.
Again, like Lee, Taylor’s novel falls into two parts. The first introduces us to Cassie and her family, as well as to the children’s growing awareness of the racism which determines which school they go to, which clothes they wear, where they can walk, what they can buy… in short, which completely circumscribes their freedom. The undercurrents of violence and conflict explode in the second section as the children learn of the brutal power their white neighbours hold over their community. Yet these similarities are merely superficial and serve to highlight the differences between Mockingbird and Roll of Thunder. Whereas we learn of Tom Robinson’s predicament from the outside in Mockingbird – he is falsely accused of raping a white girl – the first person perspective of Roll of Thunder gives us far greater insight into a community which is beginning to assert its civil rights.
As well as a determination to achieve liberty, one of the defining characteristics of the community Taylor represents is poverty. This is most visible in the food that Cassie and her family eat. The novel opens with Cassie’s youngest brother carrying his packed lunch of cornbread and oil sausages to school. Cornbread and southern biscuits (see my earlier post on Toni Morrison) are the staple of this family’s diet. In The Cornbread Gospels, food historian (with an amazing name!) Crescent Dragonwagon explains the significance of this foodstuff in American cooking:
‘Cornbread in the South speaks of kitchen acumen: the ability to make a great meal from simple ingredients; hospitality, joy, pride, and just plain good eating. But Southern cornbread also tells the story of lack; subsistence in a not-so-very-long-ago time; of stigma, class, race, and shame.’
Taylor’s narrative is the story of increasing lack. Because Cassie’s family dare to arrange a boycott of a particular store (whose owners torched a house and three men), they are forced into penury by the more powerful landowners surrounding them. Whilst Cassie’s parents keep the worst information from her, she picks up quickly on the change in their diet. Her mum admits that ‘we don’t have to have biscuits and cornbread every day’ because they can’t afford to buy flour. The family are being starved of even the most basic ingredients, all because they believe that they have the right to exercise their own choice: ‘what we do have’, Cassie’s Mama says, ‘is some choice over what we make of our lives once we’re here’.
Even if, as Dragonwagon states, cornbread has become ‘associated with celebration, abundance, and family’, we should not forget the history behind this particular bread. It is a history of a struggle to assert that everyone has the right to exercise free choice.
|1 cup cornmeal|
|1 cup plain flour|
|1 tbsp sugar|
|1 tsp salt|
|1 tsp baking powder|
|2 tbsp oil|
|1.25 cups milk|
|1. Mix the dry ingredients together in a large mixing bowl.|
|2. Beat the eggs, milk and oil together in a separate mixing bowl.|
|3. Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in the egg mixture.|
|4. Pour into a greased 8 inch baking tray.|
|5. Bake for 25 mins at 225 degrees C.|
With many thanks to Natalie for her cooking and hospitality!
Mildred Taylor, Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry (London: Gollancz, 1977)
Robert McCrum, Review of Go Set a Watchman, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/19/go-set-watchman-harper-lee-review-literary-curiosity (19 July 2015).
Crescent Dragonwagon, The Cornbread Gospels (Workman Publishing, 2007), p.8.