Bucking the Sarge is an ensemble novel; Christopher Paul Curtis grew up in Flint and creates believable secondary characters, anxious and desperate, who are trapped in an economically distressed city. The novel, though, centers on the tension between Sarge and Luther, who is its first-person narrator. Luther must reject his corrupt mother to stand up for himself. This situation represents a break from Curtis’s earlier novels, which had endorsed the value of a supportive family.
Sarge—her name suggests her preference to be feared rather than loved—attempts to impart to her son the toxic philosophy that money is everything. Her abandoned teaching career, the long dull hours at the car assembly plant, and her assorted illegal schemes have created the security she sees as an end that justifies the means. Her exploitation of the African American community in the Flint ghetto never concerns her. Only gradually do Luther and the novel’s readers fathom Sarge’s shocking willingness to exploit her own gifted son. Not surprising, Sarge ends the novel unredeemed.
As a role model for an African American urban adolescent, Luther challenges stereotypes: He avoids drugs; he loves school; he is celibate (his wallet contains an ancient condom that he has had for so long he has given it a name); and he avoids confrontations. His science fair project reveals a compassion for those in Flint’s forgotten neighborhoods, the very people his mother exploits. If Luther is precocious, however, he is only book smart—his wisdom is shaped by the neat logic of science and garnered from the cable television he watches as he supervises the group home. He only pretends to be an adult—he has a fake driver’s license and an impressive array of credit cards. Only after he understands the paradox of his parasitic mother does he achieve adulthood. Before he leaves Flint, Luther—who has studied karma—balances the wrongs to which he has been a party through his association with his mother. His moral identity secure, he heads to Florida a man.