Finally, unable to stand it any longer, I whispered to Little Man beside me, "I'm gonna get that thing."
This is a young adult novel and Cassie is a sixth grade girl. Thus, the reader gets insight into the mindset of a young girl, and it is delightfully realistic and charming. Here Cassie decides she is going to disobey her father's command that she not gamble by playing marbles; the allure of Son-Boy's blue-green orb is too much for her to resist. She knows she may get in trouble, and she knows she may get whipped. She even sees how she has hurt her friend from whom she wins the marble. Nonetheless, she is irrationally obsessed with the marble and cannot work through the wrongness of disobeying her father and engaging in an activity like gambling. If she were a bit older she might be able to think through her actions a bit more, but this is what makes her such an appealing narrator for children.
In less than thirty minutes the jury returned. The vote poll was taken. Twelve men on the jury. Twelve votes of guilty. There was to be no mercy. T.J. received the death penalty.
As the first quote explained, this is a young adult novel. However, there are also tremendously grown-up things with which Cassie and the other children have to deal; T.J. Avery's trial and sentencing are some of the most potent examples of this. T.J. is not guilty of murder, but because he exists in a racially stratified society he is privy to all of the baseness of human nature. The jury judges him not on the evidence but rather on the color of his skin. The shortcomings of the legal system are laid bare; the perils of growing up black are laid bare as well.
"When he open his mouth, he usually got somethin' worth sayin'. And what he care 'bout, he sho' take care of it."
One of the novel's most fascinating characters is Wordell Lee. Wordell barely speaks, but when he does, as his grandmother explains to Cassie, it is worth heeding. Wordell's other notable quality is a fierce devotion to those whom he loves; this is evinced in the murder of the cat that murdered the bird he loved, and in his attempt to protect Cassie at the town square. Wordell feels deeply and is a keen observer of the world around him. He does not engage with society, preferring to extricate himself and seek solace in the forest. Given the injustice and sorrow present in society, this makes a lot of sense. Cassie is fascinated by Wordell and even a little scared of him in the beginning, but as she matures she comes to appreciate him for who he is.
He knew that the power was in the color of his skin...
Stuart Walker is one of the undisputed villains of the text. He seduces Jacey and tries to do the same to Suzella, and then harasses her father when he learns she is not white. He threatens Dube, excoriates the union, insults the children, and in this quote bosses Uncle Hammer around. Stuart is rude, callous, and ignoble; nevertheless, simply due to the color of his skin he has power in this society. It does not matter that Uncle Hammer is older than Stuart and has a more developed moral compass. It does not matter that Papa owns land. It does not matter that Bud is older than Stuart either. Stuart knows his power in this world and enjoys lording it over others. Taylor thus shows the injustices of racist society through her depiction of this awful young man.
"Trouble is, there's gonna be white boys looking at you too -for no good, but they'll be looking. I don't want you looking back."
Cassie has a lot of hard lessons to learn as she grows up. One of them is how she is to behave towards and around white people. She cannot understand why Uncle Hammer and her father do not like her associating with Jeremy, but here Papa explains that white boys–even nice ones like Jeremy–often think of black girls as objects to do, with as they will and then discard afterwards. Jacey is her cautionary tale: Jacey's letting down her guard for Stuart and letting him then seduce her has ruined her life. The black adults in this novel have the double burden of not only raising their children, but also raising them in a society that devalues them for the color of their skin.
"Mary, child, all my life whenever I wanted to do something and the white folks didn't like it, I didn't do it. But now I's sixty-four years old and I figure I's deserving of doing something I wants to do, white folks like it or not."
Mrs. Lee Annie is perhaps the most potent symbol of courage in the novel. She is an elderly black woman who has spent her life bowing down to whites, but who decides that, for her 65th birthday, she will take on white supremacy and register to vote. She knows it will be dangerous and it may not work. She knows there will be repercussions. She knows that she will have to work extremely hard to master the material on which she will be tested, and to procure enough money to pay the tax. Despite all of these perils she moves forward with her plan, and although it does not work out the way she wished, her moral courage is inspiring to her entire community.
"I ain't no baby no more, Mama, and you gotta stop treating me like one. We need the money and I figures to get me a job–"
Stacey is becoming a young man and has the same sense of responsibility and dignity that his father possesses. He cannot sit back idly when he knows he can work and help bring in money for the taxes. Unfortunately his mother still sees him as a child and fears for his safety in the wider, white world. Knowing what happens to Stacey in the cane fields, it is not difficult for the reader to see that she was right; however, if she had allowed him to work closer to home for Mr. Harrison, then perhaps he would not have been compelled to venture so far away. One of Taylor's skills as a writer is allowing the reader to see and sympathize with both parties.
"Do you know what it's like when people think you're white? You can do just about anything, Cassie."
It is easy at first to condemn Suzella for pretending to be white. After all, she is betraying her black community and, although she doesn't know it at the time, setting her father up for humiliation. However, like the previous quote analysis suggests, Taylor is skilled at allowing us to see the nuance in her characters and come to understand them even when we don't approve of their actions. It isn't hard to see the truth in Suzella's words here: it is indeed easier to live as a white person, free from the derogatory comments, second-class accommodations, and leering looks. It is easier to be respected and treated like an actual human being. Again, we may not agree with what she did, but we can understand it.
"This here Communist union that mixes the races, colored with the white. Y'all mark my words, this here union mixing is only the beginning of what's to come!"
Mr. Granger is a savvy, smart man who knows how to whip up a crowd. Here he takes the dispossessed farmers from their pro-union sentiments to anger over "uppity" black people and fear over racial mixing. He knows that poor, ill-educated people who are exhausted, upset, and scared can be easily manipulated. Tradition is easier to embrace than change. His speech here has many repercussions big and small: the end of the union, violence, antipathy towards equality, the humiliation of Mrs. Annie Lee and Mrs. Ellis, the injuring of Russell and Jake Willis, and a tipping of the social balance in favor of the wealthy and the white. Mr. Granger isn't a particularly nuanced character, but he does not have to be: he stands for every wealthy white man who uses poor people as pawns to keep his own power.
It bothered me as well that there was a large chunk in his life now that I could never share. But I guessed there was nothing I could do about that, and it was all part of that thing called change.
By the end of the novel Cassie has witnessed a lot of troubling and tragic events ranging from T.J. Avery's sentence of death to Cousin Bud's humiliation at the hands of Stuart Walker. Interwoven with all this is her endeavor to come to terms with her brother becoming a young adult and seemingly leaving her behind. She has chafed at change, resisted it, and only occasionally attempted to embrace it. Now, though, Stacey's homecoming as an older, more world-weary brother shows her that change is inevitable. There is no point in resisting it; rather, one should acknowledge it and take one's own steps down that path in hopes of different but perhaps equally meaningful rewards. Stacey and Cassie won't be the same as they were a year ago, but that is okay; this is one of the great lessons that Cassie learns in the novel.
Let the Circle be Unbroken Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Let the Circle be Unbroken is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.