The Road to Memphis
is the 1990 historical fiction novel written by African-American novelist Mildred D. Taylor. Set in 1941 Mississippi, the story follows 17-year-old Cassie Logan on the brink of WWII. As the country readies for the biggest war in history, Cassie has her own personal battles to fight. Hopeful for a better life, Cassie’s world is upended when her black friend, Moe, violently attacks his white assailants and foments racial strife. When the unprecedented action puts Moe in grave danger, Cassie and her friends risk their lives to guide Moe to safety in Memphis, Tennessee. The Road to Memphis
is the fourth book in the Logan Family saga, following Song of the Trees
, Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry
, and Let the Circle Be Unbroken
. A sequel to the saga entitled The Land
was published in 2001. The Road to Memphis
was named winner of the 1991 Coretta Scott King Award.
Narrated in the first-person perspective by 17-year-old Cassie Logan, the story begins in 1941 Mississippi. Cassie’s older brother Stacey returns home in a used car with pals Moe and Little Willie. They spot pal Clarence arguing with his girlfriend Sissy over joining the army as WWII nears. They come across Charlie Simms, a racist white man whose son Jeremy treats blacks kindly and has a relationship with Stacey. Charlie tries to coerce Stacey and his friends to help pull his truck out of a ditch using his new car. The kids lift the truck out with their hands instead. Jeremy thanks them. Charlie ignores them. Cassie goes coon hunting with friends and family. Searching for his dog, Harris and Clarence happen upon the Aames brothers in the woods accompanied by their cousin Jeremy. The brothers begin teasing Harris about his race and weight. Jeremy hesitates, but joins in on the torment when pressured by his cousins. The Aames’ hound hurries Harris up a tree, which collapses under his weight. Harris breaks his leg and falls unconscious. The brothers try to apologize while Jeremy stays with Harris. Cassie retrieves her brothers for help. Harris sustains a severe head injury. Jeremy goes to the Logan house to apologize again, but Stacey doesn’t forgive him.
Later, Cassie goes to Jackson with Stacey and his pals, attending her old high school to regain a sense of normalcy. In November, she returns home for their priest’s wake. Cassie learns that Sissy is pregnant. However, neither wants to admit Clarence is the father. Clarence doesn’t want to be forced into early marriage, and Sissy plans on making Clarence propose by pretending the baby is not his. Cassie tells Sissy that her baby could belong to anyone. Unconvinced, Sissy leaves and Cassie walks to the church alone. The Aames brothers approach and begin flirting with Cassie. Cassie’s father David arrives just in time to save her from her white assailants. Back at home, a huge fight ensues when Sissy learns Cassie told Clarence of her secret plan.
An incident takes place in the adjacent town of Strawberry. Clarence needs medicine for his headache, so they stop at Wade Jamison’s place so Stacey can make a car payment as well. While there, Clarence is berated by old white men who demand to see and touch his “big head” for good luck. When Moe exits the store and interrupts Clarence’s torment, the men lash out at Moe. Later at the garage, the Aames brothers approach in their truck and begin insulting Moe for negating their good luck. Statler Aames begins insulting Moe as unworthy for Cassie. He starts rubbing Moe’s head and violating his personal space. Moe finally erupts and begins beating the Aames brothers with a tire-iron. As someone approaches, Moe becomes scared and hides in Harris’ truck. Harris stays put, vowing revenge on the Aames’ during a hunting trip later that night. Jeremy signals to Moe to hop in his truck before Simms and the garage owner discover what’s happening. Still, Statler informs them of what took place. When Cassie tells Clarence and Stacey what transpired, they tell Cassie to take Moe to Jackson. Jeremy hesitates at first, but eventually agrees to help.
In Jackson, Cassie meets an attractive newsman in a restaurant named Solomon Bradley. Cassie and Jeremy find Moe and take him to Jamison’s house for advice. Jamison informs them that Moe will likely face criminal charges, and that the best thing to do is take Moe to Memphis. Once there, Moe is to board a train to Chicago. After gathering supplies, they depart for Memphis. Along the way, they experience many hardships. Cassie is kicked and beaten for using an indoor “whites-only” bathroom. Stacey’s car breaks down in the woods. Cassie has a nightmare about being physically beaten by white men. She screams herself awake and vomits. Stacey and Willie venture off to find a car part, leaving Cassie, Moe and Clarence behind. Moe kisses Cassie, and just as he’s about to confess his feelings, men approach asking what happened to the car. Moe goes with the men to get the correct car part and the car is fixed upon his return.
Soon after, Clarence throws a tantrum about his headaches, he falls down a slope and is knocked out. The others try to get him into a hospital, but Clarence is refused medical service. A black janitor advises they seek assistance from Ma Dessie, who lives nearby. Ma Dessie gives them food and tends to Clarence’s head. As their trip to Memphis concludes, the group hears the news that the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor. When the group fails to board Moe onto the train and the car stalls again, Solomon Bradley tells Stacey where he can get his car repaired. Ashamed of her looks, Cassie bathes twice and ends up dancing and sharing a kiss with Solomon. She also helps Solomon proofread an article he’s written for the newspaper. Moe witness the two together and becomes sad. Stacey’s car gets fixed and Moe obtains a train ticket. At the station, Moe confesses his long-held love for Cassie and that he desires to marry her after receiving a better education. Moe kisses Cassie, who bids him farewell as he boards the train to Chicago. On the way back, the group discovers Clarence has died from his head injury. A woman gives Cassie the letter Clarence wrote to Sissy confessing his wished to marry her.
Devastated, the group returns to Mississippi among more hardship. Harris is sentenced to prison for abetting Moe’s escape. Harris is eventually set free when Jeremy confesses to taking Moe himself. As a result, Jeremy is battered and disowned by Charlie, who calls him a “nigger lover” despite raising him differently. When the group tries to inform Sissy that Clarence has died, she disbelieves them. Sissy runs into the woods. Harris follows her and convinces her of Clarence’s death. Sissy cries out Clarence’s name. Jeremy visits Cassie’s house and apologizes to Stacey for the time he chased Harris in the woods. Jeremy declares he’s joining the army. Stacey forgives Jeremy and goes back to Jackson the following day. Cassie arrives one day later. In the end, it’s stated that the Logans never see Jeremy ever again.