by Sherie Posesorski
Christopher Paul Curtis’ first YA novel, The Watsons Go To Birmingham—1963, was acclaimed for the appealing voice of its ten-year-old narrator; for its vibrantly authentic portrait of black, middle-class life in Flint, Michigan (where Curtis, now living in Windsor, was born); and for its convincing shifts between the comic and the near tragic in the story of the Watsons’ family life and their trip to Birmingham in the summer of 1963, when racist opposition to the civil rights movement culminated in the bombing of a Baptist church that killed four young, black girls. His debut novel was chosen as both a Newbury Honor selection and a Coretta Scott King Honor book.
In Bud, Not Buddy, Curtis once again returns to Flint, and to the past—this time, the thirties. And he has created another winning narrator in Bud (not ever Buddy) Caldwell, a ten-year-old orphan. Only six when his momma died, Bud has been shuffled back and forth between the orphanage and a series of, at best, uncaring foster homes.
The novel opens with Bud’s weary “here we go again” as he and another child are selected for foster homes. Unlike the newcomers and goers who cart their bits and pieces around in paper sacks, Bud’s a foster home pro. He carries his precious belongings around in a suitcase, as attached to him as one of his limbs.
Bud is sent off to the Amos family who, unfortunately, live up to his direst expectations. Punished for defending himself against the Amos’ son, Bud is locked up in the back shed where he’s convinced a vampire bat is just waiting for the opportunity to feast on his blood. The bat turns out to be a hornets’ nest and, galvanized by too many hornet stings, Bud breaks free of the shed and takes off.
Finished with foster homes, Bud heads off to Grand Rapids in search of his father, whom he suspects is Herman E. Calloway of the band, The Dusky Devastators of the Depression. He can think of no other reason for his momma to have been so affected by a bunch of flyers, which he now carries around with him.
Bud is a gutsy scrapper with a knowing eye and an opinion on everything. One of the most delightful comic elements of the novel are Bud’s aphoristic rules for living. Rule no. 83, for example, is “If an Adult Tells You Not to Worry, and You Weren’t Worried Before, You Better Hurry Up and Start ‘Cause You’re Already Running Late.” His narration is immensely engaging thanks to his folksy philosophizing and his overactive imagination, which invariably somersaults him into one comic catastrophe after another. While Bud’s Tom Sawyerish propensity for fanciful lying and misadventure are always amusing, however, the comedy in this novel lacks the dramatic truth and edge that made The Watsons so memorable. Instead, Bud, Not Buddy becomes increasing fuzzy with sentimentality. Though Bud travels through the harsh social landscape of depression America, encountering Hoovervilles, food lines, tramps, racial prejudice, and police brutality, the period never comes alive, the broad stroke description making it little more than scenic backdrop. No matter what hardship or threat Bud faces, every episode in the novel is too easily and happily resolved—not only undermining realism, but also narrative tension and suspense. And when Bud finally confronts Herman E. Calloway, a talented if mean-spirited curmudgeon, it doesn’t take long for things to take another benevolent turn.
The novel is consistently entertaining. Curtis writes well and has a wonderful flair for comedy and dialogue. Still, one can’t help wishing that the depth that so distinguished Curtis’ first novel was more in evidence here. •
Sherie Posesorski is a Toronto writer and editor.