On September 15, 1963, a bomb went off at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four girls were killed in this bombing—Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. Right in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, these names are but four names of many who were killed because of racism and prejudice. The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, written by Christopher Paul Curtis, is not a book about the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, or even a book that revolves around racism and prejudice. Instead it is a book about family and growing up in our world 60 years ago.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 (Published 1995) introduces us to the Watson family living in Flint, Michigan. Our narrator, Kenny Watson, is the middle child. His older brother, Byron, has “just turned thirteen so he was officially a teenage juvenile delinquent”(p.2) His little sister Joetta, better known as Joey, is a blubbering mess whenever she isn’t telling on somebody. His momma was transported from her hometown of Birmingham to Michigan, and so naturally her biggest fear is her children instantly freezing to death outside. And Kenny’s dad brings the family together with his jokes and sternness. I think it’s important for you to meet the family and know something about them first, because this is a story about family.
Kenny is a 10-year-old fourth grader that has two things wrong with him. If it weren’t for his brother Byron, he’d get teased a lot more than he does because he has a lazy eye and he loves to read. One day in second grade, the teacher makes Kenny go to the fifth grade class and read Langston Hughes. Instead of teasing him or punching him afterwards, Byron tells Kenny, “At least you oughta make ‘em pay you for doin’ that mess. If it was me they’d be coming’ out they pockets with some foldin’ money every time they took me around”(p.25). Byron is not simply Kenny’s savior, however, and he spends a great deal of the story hitting or teasing his brother. Throughout the story, we follow Kenny and his family. Much of the story revolves around Byron and all of the trouble he gets himself into. Eventually, Kenny’s parents decide that they have had enough of his Byron’s antics and they are going to make him go stay with his grandmother down in Birmingham, Alabama. While in Alabama, the Watsons become witness to a tragedy of American history.
This story won a Newbery Honor in 1996. Obviously, an entire committee got together and decided it was one of the best books of the year (interestingly, it lost that year to another historical fiction novel, The Midwife’s Apprentice). I remember reading this book when I was younger and loving it. I’m leaving the book feeling very unsettled though. I’m not sure I like it because I just feel like I’m left hurt without Christopher Paul Curtis doing anything to help that hurt. The word “unsettled” keeps popping into my mind, and I will try my best to explain why.
In one scene in the novel, a boy named Larry Dunn steals Kenny’s gloves. Larry Dunn is a bully who shoves snow into kids’ faces, and so we really want this kid to have some repercussions for his actions. Kenny tells Byron what happened, and this is a huge mistake. At first, I was so happy that Byron goes to get the gloves back, and I loved how he was sticking up for his brother. But it’s not a happy scene. Instead of Byron just getting the gloves back, he beats up Larry Dunn. A crowd forms, and nobody tries to stop Byron from beating up Larry. The line that gets me most, though, is the one that says, “When Byron jerked his arms over his head like that we all could see that Larry’s skinny little windbreaker was ripped under both arms and Larry just had on a T-shirt underneath it”(p.61). It is the middle of winter in Michigan, and this poor boy has nothing but a t-shirt and a windbreaker on. Moreover, what is probably his only jacket is not ruined. We don’t really run into Larry Dunn much again, and we aren’t given more information on his home life, but I think from that one line we can see why Larry Dunn was a little bit of a bully. I can see why this scene was included, to show Byron’s weird way of sticking up for his brother that just goes too far, but I wish it had been further developed. Could there not be some kindness extended to Larry in this book?
Another character that leaves me unsettled is Rufus. Rufus comes from the south, and Kenny feels like Rufus is Kenny’s savior in that now people will have someone else to pick on. Rufus is from the south, and from his very first “H’iya, y’all!” Kenny knows that his prayers have been answered. Soon, though, Rufus becomes his friend. On the first day of school, Rufus forgets his lunch and Kenny shares. We know something is up, though, when Kenny says, “I know he didn’t think I noticed, but the big kid [Rufus] gave his little brother the other half of my sandwich. I guess both of them had forgot about lunch”(p.36). People soon begin to make fun of Rufus and his brother when they realize that he and his brother don’t have much clothes. This unsettles me so much because I think of kids that I have seen, and the kids that are going around like this every day. So many children don’t have enough clothes or enough food to eat. Do I think it is an important issue that has a welcome place in children’s literature? Absolutely. It’s just that, like Larry Dunn, my heart hurts for Rufus and his brother and there is nothing else about it in the book. One of my least favorite parts of the book is when Kenny laughs at Rufus one day when everyone else is making fun of him. Rufus stops being Kenny’s friend. What really gets to me is not that Kenny laughed, but that in the end it was not even Kenny who fixed things. Kenny’s mom goes to talk to Rufus, and later that evening, Rufus shows up at Kenny’s house. I wanted Kenny to take ownership of what he did and fix things all on his own.
The most unsettling part for me is the abusive nature of the parents. Yes, I am going to go ahead and say abusive. In the book, Byron is constantly lighting matches. His mother keeps threatening that she will burn him the next time that he lights a match. Well, next time comes and we are given this horrific scene where, were it not for Joetta, Byron would have been burned. The worst part is that the mother manipulates Joey into agreeing that she should burn him! She says, “Don’t you remember, sweetheart? Don’t you remember when this happened last week I swore to God that if Byron did it again I would burn him? What do you think, do you think I should break my word to God?”(p.72). Joetta agrees that she should not break her promise and tells her mom to go ahead and burn him. I know that this book is set sixty years ago when child-rearing was different, but I don’t think that makes it okay.
Byron doesn’t end up getting burned that day, but he does get beat by his father later that evening. We are supposed to be okay with this because at least he didn’t get burned. When Byron goes and gets a “conk,” a hip hairdo in the 1960s, he knows he is in trouble. The mother tells him, “Well, Daddy Cool, you enjoy your Mexican-style hair while you can, ‘cause I’m sure when your daddy gets through with you you won’t be enjoying too much of anything, and cool is the one thing you won’t be feeling”(p.89). Byron goes to his room where he waits in dread for his father to come home and presumably beat him. Although he doesn’t beat him, it is obvious that this is the expected solution. I just have such a problem with this. I can distinctly remember the fear of knowing that you are going to get spanked, beaten, whatever, at some point in the future. Children shouldn’t be that afraid of their parents—afraid that they are going to beat them, burn them, or do whatever else to them. I am so unsettled by all of this because I have the feeling that at the end of this story we are supposed to love Kenny’s mother and father. They do great things for their children in the story, but this abuse overshadows it all for me. I can’t shake the feeling that I would be afraid of them if they were my own parents.
Before the story begins, there is a page that states “In memory of…” and then lists the four girls who died in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Keeping that in mind, we know that this event must be coming somewhere in the book. The bombing does not happen until the last 30 pages. In a trance-like state, Kenny goes into the church afterwards and is completely traumatized. His traumatization in the last 30 pages is another unsettling for me. His parents are worried about him, but of course they don’t really do much to help him. In the end, it is Byron who holds him and lets him cry and helps to make everything okay. I just think that 30 pages to deal with something like a bombing and its aftermath makes everything too rushed. I can’t believe that he was able to deal with a trauma like that in such a short amount of time. It tipped me over the edge to not liking this book.
Overall, I think the book has good qualities too it, but in a way I am actually afraid to just come out and say that I don’t like it. If you are going to give me a story with poverty, bullying, and abuse, I need there to be something more to it. I’m so unsettled because the parents are abusive, but we are supposed to like them. Rufus and Larry are poor, and we are just supposed to deal with. Kenny is absolutely traumatized, and we are supposed to believe that he is just able to snap out of it. I don’t feel like all of the issues in this book were dealt with in a way that makes it hopeful for a child who is going through any of these issues. I know that many people are going to disagree with me about my thoughts on this book, but I’m ready for it. After reading around on Amazon and the internet, it seems I am the only one who has this issue with the story. Anyone else?