Friday, May 10, 2013

Review: The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis

The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963--
Christopher Paul Curtis
1995 by Laurel-Leaf
210 pages

Enter the hilarious world of ten-year-old Kenny and his family, the Weird Watsons of Flint, Michigan. There's Momma, Dad, little sister Joetta, Kenny, and Byron, Kenny's older brother, who, at thirteen, is an "official juvenile delinquent."

When Momma and Dad decide it's time for a visit to Grandma, Dad comes home with the amazing Ultra-Glide, and the Watsons set out on a trip like no other. Heading South, they're going to Birmingham, Alabama, and toward one of the darkest moments in America's history.

In fourth grade teacher, my teacher read Bud Not Buddy aloud to our class, and I did not like it.  I was in my fantasy-only phase, and a story about a boy searching for his father during the depression didn't interest me at all.  Reading The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 makes me realize I should probably go back and give Bud a second chance.   

The Watsons is excellent.  It doesn't have an overarching plot; it's more a series of vignettes about Kenny and his family.  Most Civil Rights Movement books are entirely about racism and persecution and the need for equality and the injustices, but this book didn't go into all that until the very end.  It was kind of nice to just see what life was like in the 60's for an average family.  Kenny's antics prove that it wasn't all that much different from life today.

I like Kenny's voice.  He habitually exaggerates his adventures and his descriptions, making an entertaining read.  He reuses phrases like "talking a mile a minute" or "you might as well have him up to a tree and said ready, aim fire."  This could be seen as annoying, but coming from Kenny,I liked it.  His repetitions are a sort of familiar refrain throughout the novel.

The audiobook is excellent.  It's narrated by LeVar Burton, so the whole book is basicaly an extended episode of Reading Rainbow.  Nostalgia!  And Burton's narration matches well with Kenny's exuberant storytelling.

The last couple of episodes are unexpected heavy, given the light tone of the rest of the book, but they make up my favorite part of the novel.  I love Curtis's exploration of something like post traumatic stress disorder as Kenny tries to make sense of the horrible things he saw.  Kenny's not quite a naive narrator, but because of his youth or his shock, he can't comprehend what happened.  It's a really interesting last couple of chapters.  But fear not; we don't end on a despairing note.  We even sort of almost actually like Byron by the end.

The Watson's Go to Birmingham--1963 is a satisfying and thought provoking read that I liked much more than I expected.

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