28 pages 56 minutes read

Mildred D. Taylor

The Gold Cadillac

Fiction | Novella | Middle Grade | Published in 1987

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Summary and Study Guide



Mildred D. Taylor’s The Gold Cadillac is a semi-autobiographical novella that describes a young Black girl’s first encounter with structural racism. Illustrated by Michael Hays, the text was first published by Dial Books for Young Readers in 1987 and then published by Puffin Books in 1998. This study guide refers to the 1998 edition. When published, The Gold Cadillac was honored as an American Bookseller “Pick of the Lists” and was named an NCSS-CBC Notable Children’s Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies. The text is part of Taylor’s larger body of work that circles around the family described in her acclaimed novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. While The Gold Cadillac doesn’t include characters from Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (or Taylor’s related novels), it thematically addresses many of the same issues, including racism in the United States and how Black families navigated oppression in the mid-20th century.

Content Warning

Readers should note that the text mentions lynching of Black Americans and portrays a young girl’s harrowing experiences of the Jim Crow South, including racial segregation and racist policing.

Plot Summary

The first-person narrator of The Gold Cadillac, ’lois, is a young girl who lives with her middle-class family in Toledo, Ohio. Her family is Black, and many of her relatives live nearby. ’Lois and her sister, Wilma, love living in their neighborhood because they can see their aunts, uncles, and cousins all the time. Their parents, Wilbert and Dee, whom the girls refer to as Daddy and Mother (or Mother-Dear), are caring adults who want to make a good life for their family.

The novella’s title, The Gold Cadillac, foreshadows the central conflict of the novel: ’Lois’s father buys a brand-new gold Cadillac from a car dealership. While driving such a car doesn’t present a problem for Wilbert in mid-20th-century Ohio, a Black man driving such a car in the South would attract immediate attention. Wilbert’s decision to drive an expensive car puts ’lois and her family at risk if they go anywhere with overt structural and institutional racism.

The purchase of the car is the start of two central conflicts. First, Dee was not consulted in the purchase and had understood the family was saving money for a new house, while Wilbert wanted to mark his success as a Black man who moved North and achieved the American dream of attaining home ownership and driving a fine car. Second, the family must confront institutional racism when they drive the gold Cadillac through the Jim Crow South.

Dee, or Mother-Dear, refuses to ride in the car until Wilbert, or Daddy, announces his intention to drive the car to Mississippi to see family. Dee immediately responds that she and the girls will accompany him. The family, also accompanied by a caravan of family members, sets off for Mississippi. As soon as they enter Kentucky, signs specifying “white only” begin to appear in the windows of the businesses they pass. When the travelers get to Memphis, ’lois’s family is separated from the rest of the caravan. Almost immediately upon crossing into to Mississippi, the family is pulled over by police, and ’lois watches her father get searched and arrested for allegedly stealing the gold Cadillac. Though her father is released, ’lois watches the interactions her father has with the police and describes her fear and anxiety. The family drives as far as they can, and when they stop for the night, ’lois sleeps clutching a kitchen knife, scared of what might happen to her family. Upon waking, ’lois’s parents reassure her that they will keep her safe.

After the family drives back to Memphis where Daddy trades the Cadillac for a cousin’s more nondescript Chevy, ’lois and her family arrive at the grandparents’ farm in Mississippi without further incident. In this calmer setting, ’lois asks her father why the police treated him that way. He explains the structural, institutional, and interpersonal racism and his frustration with the system.

When the family returns home, Daddy returns the gold Cadillac and orders a simpler car. The family drives around in an old truck, and when ’lois tells her father that she is embarrassed, he tells her to hold her head high. Both parents emphasize the importance of saving for their new house. As the story concludes, ’lois reflects on the experience of the gold Cadillac and says the memory of it and the trip South would stay with her forever.