|Robb's Rambling Reviews
Christopher Paul Curtis’ The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963 is a truly remarkable work. Set, as the title indicates in 1963, the story documents a family’s trip from Flint, Michigan to Birmingham, Alabama on a sort of family vacation. In the beginning chapters of the novel we are introduced to the Watson family who reside in Flint. As a black family living in the north, the children have been exposed to very little racial discrimination and are basically unaware of the civil rights movement of the time. This portion of the book is very light hearted and amusing as Kenny, the ten year old narrator, tells story after amusing story. However, as the story progresses from the northern states into the Deep South, the children become exposed to increased hostility and racial prejudice. Curtis uses the two differing settings to his advantage by using them to help create the novel’s atmosphere and its changing moods. Yin and yang. Sweet and sour. Love and hate.
One of my favorite elements of the story are the characters themselves. Known collectively as “The Weird Watsons,” this hilarious family provides needed comic relief for the trials which are about to come. Kenny, the middle child is sweet natured and quite smart, while his older brother, Byron is accused of becoming a juvenile delinquent. Joetta, the only girl and the baby as well, is actually the most mature of the three. Not one to fall for her brothers’ shenanigans, she is levelheaded an even-tempered. Dad is a hardworking, concerned father with a great sense of humor while Momma, on the other hand, is the list maker, planner, and strict disciplinarian. The combination of the five characters, and everything that makes them who they are, delivers everything Curtis needs for this novel: loyalty, compassion, wit, intelligence, and oh so much love.
The Watsons plot revolves around their need to get Byron out of the inner city before this parents lose total control of him. When the decision is made to take Byron to Alabama to spend the summer with Grandma Sands, the family packs into their car, known as the Brown Bomber, and heads to Alabama. The children’s first exposure to coming events occurs when Dad refuses to stop at motels along the way, preferring to drive straight through to risk any trouble. When they arrive at Grandma Sands' house things seem to take a turn for the better until Joey goes to Sunday school at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. What happens that day changes the family forever, with Joey and Kenny being at the center of the climax and aftermath.
Born a few years after the bombing, I still feel as though I grew up during the civil rights movement. But, like Kenny and his siblings, I grew up in the North, where there was little prejudice or segregation. It wasn’t until my family moved to the south that I was exposed to racial bias of any sort. I remember, as a youngster, going into a department store and seeing a water fountain that said “Colored Only” on it. It didn’t work anymore, and when I asked my mother about it, she changed the subject quite quickly. I would like to say that things have changed quite dramatically since the days of church bombings, lunch counter sit-ins, and civil rights leaders being gunned down. Unfortunately I can’t. It seems as though we are living in another generation of civil rights violations and abuses. Where I once looked to my generation to be the catalyst for positive change, I now look to my nieces and nephews generation to make sense of what we have done, and to try and rectify the abuses.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963 is not just a time capsule look into events during a turbulent time in American history. Curtis has created a story about the importance of family and the evils of prejudice. His characters are ones anyone can relate to, and that makes his plot all the more tense and intriguing. Readers will feel as though their own family members have been put in harm’s way as the story unfolds. His setting, 1963, makes this story nonetheless relevant. In fact, it is more relevant today than it was merely a few years ago. Which I must say, is a sad state of affairs. Thank you Christopher, for a job well done.
Citation: Curtis, C. P. (2005). The Watsons go to Birmingham. New York, NY: Scholastic Press.