An Introduction to the Issues of Slavery
Silent Thunder: A Civil War Story, is great for introducing children to the horrors of slavery in the American south. The novel places you in the shoes of two child protagonists, Summer and Rosco. It allows you to feel their pain and share in their struggle as they deal with suppression of their thoughts and desires, or 'silent thunders.' The fact that the characters are so relatable, and that Andrea Davis Pinkney is such a great writer, makes this a novel an enjoyable read for both children and adults. It also provides important study goals for middle-school language arts classes.
The story takes place for the most part on a plantation in Virginia in which two siblings, Summer and Rosco, suffer under the yoke of slavery. Rosco is about 13 years old, and he is always concerned with looking after his rambunctious little sister Summer, age 11. The plot introduces us to an interesting and varied cast of characters, such as Master Gideon and the wise slave Thea–who can predict future events. We also meet the two siblings' Mama, who attempts to protect her children by stifling their determination to be who they want to be and do what they want to do.
The book begins in the year 1862. It is here that we learn that the main characters and the other slaves suppress their “silent thunder.” An adult slave explains that your silent thunder comprises your thoughts and desires, anything that makes you feel good.
This can be interpreted as the deconstruction of one’s identity in response to the blatant violence of slavery, and the two child characters struggle against this destruction of their self.
We soon learn that Rosco has broken the law and learned how to read from overhearing the lessons of his Master’s son, Lowell Parnell. Roscoe compounds his crime by teaching his younger sister Summer to read. It is here that Pinkney, in her clever writing style, slips in shocking facts of the brutality of slavery, as Summer learns to recognize her first letter, the ‘P’ which her Master Gideon Parnell used to brand her as his own. As we view this and the other injustices experienced by the slaves through their own eyes, we gain a better understand of what it must have been like to be a slave in this era.
As the story progesses, we learn that Rosco’s own “silent thunder,” his desire to be free, is propelled by his yearning to enlist in Union arms, and, through Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, become a freeman. As well, Summer grows up quickly through the terrible secret about herself that she learns from her Mama.
The book also teaches another horror of slavery, that the slaves were used not only for physical labor but also for sexual pleasure. The types of casual brutalities expressed in the novel serve only to reinforce the fact that slavery was an awful institution. There is a thrilling conclusion when Rosco and his friend Clem face a decision and a challenge about their future.
What’s the Verdict?
All in all, Pinkney paints for us a realistic picture of what slavery could have been like for two children in the 1860s. The book is a kind of initiation story as the adults, whether they are slave or master, attempt to socialize the children, Rosco and Summer.
Summer, for example, is berated by her mother for her antics, including wanting a new china-head doll and gossiping. Her mother, it seems, knows that this type of behavior could harm her child in the future. However, the characters, like children anywhere, just want to be themselves, and they struggle against this socialization. You'll have to read the book to know the ending.
The book teaches a valuable lesson: We should strive to be who we want to be, allowing nothing to hinder us.
Use In The Classroom
This book is historical fiction written for children near the ages of Rosco and Summer, who are ages 13 and 11 respectively. Students can learn about the history of slavery through the characters' eyes and also get a realistic view of its brutal reality. The historical facts in the novel include information about the Emancipation Proclamation and the violence used against slaves. Additional projects could be a study of African-Americans whe joined the Union forces or an essay about the Emancipation Proclamation. Framing discussions around these topics could be a useful book project.
Pinkney, Andrea Davis, Silent Thunder: A Civil War Story, Turtleback Books: A Division of Sanval, 2001.