Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963"

Title: The Watson's Go to Birmingham--1963
Author: Christopher Paul Curtis
Publisher: Yearling, 1995
Genre: Historical Fiction
Age Range: 3-6

Newbery Honor Book
Coretta Scott King Honor Book

Summary: The Watsons are an African American family living in Flint, Michigan, where the weather is freezing. There is a mother named Wilona, a father named Daniel, an older juvenile delinquent brother named Byron, the storyteller named Kenny, and a little sister named Joetta. The family struggles trying to keep Byron in line. Kenny is really intelligent, and Joey is a bit of a whiner and tattle-tale. Kenny talks a lot about his family, and making a new friend named Rufus. Byron continually gets into trouble, and his parents finally decide that they are going to take him to Alabama to stay with their grandmother. The family is going to drive together and stay for a few weeks, and then leave Byron there. Their mother has everything planned out, and their father even bought a portable record player for their car. On the way, their father decides he is going to drive straight to Alabama, much to their mother's dismay. Once arriving there, it seems like Kenny and By switch places because Kenny is in a bad mood and hot, while Byron is enjoying everything. Kenny goes against the warning signs into Collier's Landing, where a whirlpool killed a young boy. Kenny begins being pulled in by the "Wool Pooh" and it is Byron who saves him. On Sunday, Kenny is still shaken by the events, and he sees his little sister go to Sunday School. A little while later a huge noise shakes everyone, and it is soon realized that someone has bombed the church. Kenny runs over there finding a shoe, and seeing many terrible things in the church. He thinks it belongs to his sister, and that she is dead. When he gets home, she comes into his room, and he acts like she is a ghost. What had happened was Joey had gotten too hot in the church and came home on her own. The family left that day and went home. Kenny has a hard time with the whole thing because he believes it was the "Wool Pooh" who was in the church pulling Joey away from him, and he let go. He eventually has a breakdown with By in the bathroom, and realizes that he is okay, and to finally let go of the things that happened because they were not his fault.

Response: This novel displays a wide variety of emotions, and allows for the reader to really get inside the characters’ personalities. The first half of the book gives the reader an idea as to where the family lives, their experiences, and a good description of each character.

The father of the family is goofy and fun loving; he spends most of his time cracking jokes, and trying to get their mother to laugh. He is head over heels in love with her. He is also a very proud man, driving straight through to Alabama just to prove he is still young enough to do it. The mother is a stern woman, who is definitely the head of the household. She has those looks that let everyone know what she is thinking; she is much more serious than her husband. A strong southern woman at heart, she plans every detail of the trip, and can not wait to show her family her great southern roots. Byron is thee typical rebellious teenager. He spends most of his time skipping school, bullying children, and getting into any and every kind of trouble. His juvenile record is what sets the family on their trip. He will have to stay with their grandmother down there all summer because of his continuous trouble. Kenny is the storyteller. The novel is told from his young perspective. He is very intelligent; one of the best readers in the school. He does his best to stay out of the way of his older brother, and other school bullies. He has one friend, a new boy who moved up from the south. Joetta, or Joey, is the youngest. She is very caring and never wants for her brothers to get in trouble; however, there are times that she can be a tattle-tale. She loves church, and attends Sunday school each and every week. The family is known as the “Weird Watsons” because they are often doing things a little out of the ordinary. For example, when their father comes home with the portable record player in the car, they sit out there for hours listening to all their favorite records.

There are three events that take place in the novel that I feel like made a great impression on me, and really helped to make this book a great read.

The first event takes place when the family arrives in Alabama. It is hot, and this makes Kenny very grouchy. He decides that he is going to venture to Collier’s Landing, disregarding the warnings and a cautionary tale about a young boy who was killed. Not even Byron will go with him. After arriving in Alabama he made a 180, perhaps he changed, or maybe he was just afraid of having to stay there all summer. Kenny gets in the water, and at first, he feels great. He feels free. However, he starts to realize he is being pulled further and further out into the water, and he wants to get back to land. There is a whirl pool, and Kenny thinks it is a “wool pooh”, an actually person trying to get you. It starts sucking him under the water, and pulling him further away from the shore. As hard as he swims, he can not seem to shake the “wool pooh” from grabbing his leg. I think this is symbolic of the entire Civil Rights Movement. They waded into it wanting freedom, which they deserved. Their evil “wool pooh” were those who opposed them in their efforts. They would try to keep them from it by bombing churches, killing people, and discouraging them in any way possible. As for Kenny, he continues to think about his little sister, and soon he is pulled to safety by his big brother, Byron. The two decide not to tell anyone about it, and it weighs heavy on Kenny’s chest.

The second event takes place the next Sunday afternoon. Kenny tells his sister she looks beautiful before she leaves to go to Sunday school, which should be a forewarning that something is not right with the day because he has never told her that before. Not too much later, there is a huge crashing sound, like thunder. No one really knows what is going on until Kenny hears his mother scream. He learns that the church that Joey has gone to has been bombed. He is in a daze as he rushes over there. He finds a shoe in the rubble that looks just like Joey’s. He starts to pull at it, and he starts to think that the “wool pooh” has got a hold of her, and he is too scared to continue. He sees little girls hurt, and rushes home. He gets back and sees Joetta coming into his room, and he thinks she is a ghost. What had happened was she was hot and went outside, and apparently followed him home. She was safe, but Kenny could not shake the fact that he was not brave enough to take on the “wool pooh.” This again is symbolic of the entire Civil Rights Movement. Unfortunately, bombings like this took place often during this time. Little girls and other innocent people were hurt and killed for no reason. Those who opposed the advancing movement did this to try and stop who they could; the “wool pooh” that scared Kenny also scared many others because they knew the resistance was willing to do whatever it took to keep them from continuing in their efforts.

The last event takes place weeks after the Watsons return home from Alabama. Kenny, having been through what he had the past few weeks, was not himself. He was carrying a heavy load, as many would having dealt with near death experiences. He and Byron lay in the bathroom and Kenny sobs and talks about his guilt for not fighting the “wool pooh” or Joey. He has this unnecessary guilt built up inside of him, and Byron tells him that he must let it go. On page 203, Byron gives a profound and poignant statement. He says, “Kenny, things ain’t ever going to be fair. How’s it fair that two grown men hate Negroes so much that they’d kill some kids just to stop them from going to school? How’s it fair that even though the cops down there might know who did it nothing will probably ever happen to those men? It ain’t. But you gotta understand that that’s the way it is and keep on steppin’.” This statement pretty much sums up the entire point of the book, and how those involved in the Civil Rights Movement ever found the strength to continue on their journey.

Teaching Ideas: This novel is a perfect way to talk about the Civil Rights Movement. Being from North Carolina it is important to talk about all the great events that took place here. The Greensboro sit ins are perhaps the most famous. Also, discussing the bus boycotts and church bombings that took place all over is a vital part of the movement. Using the book Rosa, and talking about influential people will help them to understand how important this time period was. Children must understand that this was a peaceful movement, but the resistance to it was what brought violence. Movies such as Remember the Titans and Glory Road are a great supplemental to this.

1 comment:

Dr. Frye said...

Well-written summary! I appreciate the way you delineate the events that were impressionable for you. CPC is one of my favorite writers of historical fiction. His books are just REAL! You really know the characters and experience quite a loss when you have finished the book :)