What does the novel tell us about the experience of black Americans during the Great Depression?
Taylor pulls no punches about showcasing how black Americans suffered sometimes even more than whites did during the Great Depression. Her characters are sharecroppers or struggling landowners trying to navigate rapacious white landowners and government programs and taxes. They are occasionally lied to and manipulated by these landowners and concomitantly have difficulty feeding their families. They dabble in joining a union but the threat of blacks clamoring for fully equal rights scares off the whites who initially considered joining it with them. Racism combines with economic duress to create a situation that is at times insurmountable.
How does Taylor balance big themes, little themes, serious themes, and lighthearted themes in this novel?
The novel is full of weighty themes such as racism, death, loss, injustice, violence, poverty, and the inhumanity of man. Cassie and her family members navigate a world full of uncertainty and cruelty; it is also a world that often denies them their selfhood. However, this is still a novel about a twelve-year old girl. There are silly moments, moments of elation (like when Cassie rides Lady), moments that contain simple lessons (like the marble), moments of identity formation, moments of friendship and love, moments of boredom, and moments of jealousy and brattiness. Cassie is a very realistic young girl and Taylor allows this to come through even as she takes the reader through difficult situations.
Can adults and young people both enjoy this novel? What might each group of readers appreciate about it?
This is ostensibly a young adult novel. It is narrated by Cassie, a twelve-year-old girl, and told in a simple, straightforward fashion. Many of Cassie's concerns, thoughts, and behaviors are those of a child. There is a lot she does not understand. Even though adults are important characters, we only see them through Cassie's eyes. However, the novel is full of deep and profound meditations on weighty themes. It presents a portrait of a moment in time that is valuable for adults to read about just as much as children. In fact, adults bringing their knowledge of American history to the table can arguably get even more out of the novel than a person who does not know the long, sordid history of slavery and racism. Even though the story is told simply, Taylor does not talk down to her readers. Her characters are fully-fleshed, her prose bold and her ideas thoughtfully conveyed.
Why is the novel titled after the song "Let the Circle be Unbroken"?
Taylor titles her novel after this song in order to assert one of its most prominent themes: family and community. These two things are what provide meaning and sustenance in a life full of trauma and uncertainty. Family and community deliver life lessons, protect, and nurture. The concept of the circle is perfect, for there is no way to break it or get out of it. Inside the circle is life and love. It is a concept that inspires hope and solace.
What are some of the lessons Cassie had learned by the end of the novel?
Cassie learns lessons big and small in this novel. She learns not to covet and gamble. She learns that people are not always what they seem to be at first; it is better to get to know them and accept them for who they are. The harshness of the world–especially a black person's world–is also something she comes to see. The things that happen to T.J., Jacey, Bud, and John Moses are all reminders of the dangerous nature of being black in America. She also learns that change and growing up are inevitable: one must not fight these things but rather embrace them. While she spends much of the early part of the novel resenting Stacey for growing up and leaving her behind, by its end she comes to embrace it as a part of life.