In the opening pages of The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, all five members of the Watson family are sitting wrapped in blankets against the cold of the apartment. Mrs. Watson is convinced they are going to freeze to death. Through the eyes of ten-year-old Kenny, the reader learns about the crazy antics of his family. Kenny believes that everyone in his neighborhood and school must think his family is strange—"The Weird Watsons".
Through Kenny's eyes we view his tenuous love/hate relationship with his older brother Byron, often called By. Kenny's feelings about By swing between fear of By's bullying tactics, awe of By's "fantastic adventures," and pleasure in By's sometimes unexpected kindness.
Kenny frequently tries to understand how a bully can have such a great sense of humor. By's craziness includes a narcissistic attitude which freezes his lips to the side-view mirror of the family's car, known to the children as the "Brown Bomber," as he kisses himself one freezing winter morning when the family decides to go to an aunt's house to escape the cold in their apartment. When he has his hair straightened against the express wishes of his parents, Dad cuts it all off and shaves By's head. These and other hilarious incidents draw the reader into the intimacy of this African-American family living in Flint, Michigan, in 1963. Kenny stands on the sidelines sometimes admiring By's rebellion and slow slide towards trouble and other times...
(The entire section is 508 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Chapter 1 Summary
The story, narrated by ten-year-old Kenny Watson, opens on "one of those super-duper-cold Saturdays" in Flint, Michigan. The whole family—Dad, Momma, Kenny, and five-year-old Joetta—is huddled together on the sofa, trying to keep warm. Byron, who has just turned thirteen and is now "officially a teenage juvenile delinquent," is sitting there, too, but keeping himself a little bit apart from the rest of the family, trying to act "cool and bored." The thermostat is turned all the way up, and the furnace is "sounding like it [is] about to blow up," but it is still ridiculously cold in the house. Dad turns on the TV to try to make everyone forget their discomfort, but that only makes things worse: there is a special news report on television, telling how bad the weather is and how long it will last, followed by a comment by the weather man comparing conditions in Flint to those in Atlanta, Georgia, where it is currently in the mid-seventies.
Momma, who was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, which is a mere hundred and fifty miles from Atlanta, exclaims, "I knew I should have listened to Moses Henderson!" Moses is an old boyfriend whom Momma gave up to marry Dad, and she jokingly says that she was "a young girl who made a bad choice." Dad, who loves to clown around, starts telling stories about Moses, who had been nicknamed "Hambone" because of his oddly-shaped head. The family, including Momma and even Byron, laughs uproariously. On a more serious note, Momma recalls that in Birmingham, "life is slower, the people are friendlier." When Dad reminds her that black people are not allowed to use the same facilities as white people there, she concedes that conditions are not perfect, but that on the whole, "people are more honest about the way they feel" and, in a comment directed at Byron, "folks there do know how to respect their parents."
Dad decides that it is too cold in their house to stay the night, so he calls Aunt Cydney to see if she will take them in. Aunt Cydney tells the Watsons to hurry over, and Dad goes outside to start up their dull brown 1948 Plymouth, dubbed "the Brown Bomber." He then assigns the boys to scrape the ice off the car's windows. Kenny gets right to work, but Byron dawdles, cleaning off the mirror on his side of the car and admiring himself in it. As Kenny continues scraping, he hears Byron calling him; Byron sounds funny, as if he has something in his mouth. Going over to investigate,...
(The entire section is 654 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary
At Clark Elementary, Byron, who is in the sixth grade and very "cool," is like a god; Kenny, on the other hand, is "just another fourth-grade punk." In his own estimation, Kenny has two things wrong with him that make him the focus of teasing and ridicule at the hands of the other kids. The first thing wrong with him is that he loves to read. Teachers think Kenny is "real smart," and in the past, they have exploited his ability to read well by taking him to different classrooms to show off his skill and use him as an example. This, of course, has not endeared him to his peers.
Kenny remembers a terrible day two years previous when he, a second-grader, had been taken to read in front of Mr. Alums's fifth-grade class. Kenny had been horrified to find that this was Byron's class; to make things worse, Byron had been reprimanded for looking at his brother with "fire [in his] eyes." Byron had always been a poor student, and when Mr. Alum had told him that he would do well to emulate his little brother, Kenny had known that the whole thing was a very bad idea. After school, Byron and his best friend, Buphead, had caught up with Kenny and a crowd had formed, anticipating that Kenny was about to get beat up. Surprisingly, when Buphead made a characteristically threatening remark, Byron had told him to "leave the little clown alone." He had then punched Kenny softly on the arm and had told him, "At least you oughta make 'em pay you for doin' that mess." Kenny had been shocked to realize that Byron was proud of him. When the other students had seen that Byron wasn't going to do anything to Kenny for being smart, they decided that they had better not do anything either. Although Kenny still had to endure being called names alluding to his studiousness, such as "Egghead" and "Poindexter," things would have been much worse—except for Byron.
The second thing wrong with Kenny is that he has a lazy eye. Kenny has done exercises and even worn a patch over the eye to try to correct it, but his eyeball still insists on resting in the corner of his eye by his nose instead of looking where it is supposed to look. Byron helps Kenny with this problem as well, showing him how to keep his head straight and look at people sideways when he talks to them, so that his eyes are both looking in the same direction. This way, people are not so quick to notice that there is something wrong with Kenny's eye.
Kenny is appreciative of his...
(The entire section is 647 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
Kenny plans to stay as far away as possible from the new boy, Rufus, but things do not work out that way. The principal seats Rufus next to him in the classroom, and Kenny is worried because he thinks the kids, instead of focusing their cruelty on the new boy, will now pick on both of them—and do so twice as much. Even though Kenny does not talk much to him, Rufus keeps "jabbering away at [him] all through class" and follows him out to lunch as well. Rufus has apparently forgotten to bring something to eat, so Kenny gives him one of his peanut butter sandwiches; Rufus gobbles down half of it and folds the other half carefully back in its wrapper. Rufus then asks Kenny about his lazy eye, but his tone is different from that of the other kids, who only bring the subject up torment him. Rufus asks out of simple curiosity and concern. He then sees a squirrel sitting in a tree across the street and marvels at how fat it is. In Arkansas, where he is from, Rufus would have shot the squirrel, which would have provided a delicious meal for his family. Kenny has a hard time believing that Rufus really knows how to shoot a gun, but Rufus's brother, Cody, joins them and confirms that it is true. Kenny notices that Rufus gives the other half of the sandwich to Cody and guesses that Cody forgot his lunch, too.
Rufus begins coming over to Kenny's house in the evenings, and their favorite thing to do is play with Kenny's little plastic dinosaurs. Kenny does not mind because Rufus does not cheat or try to steal his toys. The only other boy Kenny used to play dinosaurs with was L.J. Jones, who had pilfered from his collection constantly. One day, L.J. had suggested to Kenny that they have a huge dinosaur war and tricked him into bringing out his entire collection, which was against Momma's rules. Kenny and L.J. had had a great time annihilating the monsters with pretend atomic bombs. When the carnage was complete, L.J. had told Kenny that the dinosaurs would have to be buried in the ground because they were now radioactive, and he and Kenny had dug three big holes and put the defunct creatures in them. L.J. had then distracted Kenny, taking him to see an older classmate's secret fort, and it was not until Kenny was in bed that night that he remembered the buried dinosaurs. Sneaking out of the house, he went down to the dinosaur graves, only to find them empty. Kenny realized that L.J. had tricked him out of nearly his whole dinosaur collection;...
(The entire section is 731 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
Momma, having been born in Alabama, is unused to the frigid weather in Flint; "she (doesn't) really know anything about the cold." As a consequence, she forces Kenny and Joetta (Joey) to wear layers and layers of clothing when they go out in the winter, bundling them up so much that they can hardly move. It is Kenny's job to help Joey out of her outerwear once she gets to school, so Kenny dutifully goes down to the kindergarten every day after he has taken off all his own "junk" to tend to his little sister. Although the children have tried to tell Momma that she is keeping them way too warm, Momma is unmoving, telling them that the cold "is very dangerous, people die in it all the time." Kenny complains to Byron about all the whining and crying Joey does when he tries to help her out of her clothes, and Byron, with uncharacteristic cooperativeness, says he will talk to Joey. Byron tells Joey that there is a good reason why Momma makes her wear "all that stuff" and brings her attention to the garbage trucks with big doors on the back that come through the neighborhood. He says that the streets are indeed "full of dead, froze people" every cold morning and that the garbage people come and take the bodies away in the trucks. Byron tells Kenny and Joey that the victims are generally from the South, where they have thinner blood. Since Momma is from the South, half of her children's blood is afflicted with this condition, and so they are prone to freezing to death very quickly in the bitter climate in Flint. Kenny does not believe all of what Byron says, but Joey believes every word; Kenny notes that Joetta does not cry anymore when she has to get into her winter clothes.
Every year, Momma buys the Watson children two pears of leather gloves each to get them through the winter. If they lose the first pair, they have to wear their second pair to school "kindergarten style," with the gloves pinned to a string pulled through their coat sleeves so they cannot be lost. This year, Kenny shares his gloves with Rufus, who has none; Kenny keeps the right one and gives Rufus the left one, so they each can have one warm hand with which to play in the snow. After a while, Kenny gets the idea to fool Momma into letting him use his second pair of gloves so he and Rufus can each have a full set. Kenny wears his gloves kindergarten style and gives the original pair to Rufus, which works fine until Kenny's second pair of gloves inexplicably vanishes,...
(The entire section is 708 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
Byron has a dangerous habit of playing with matches, and Momma is acutely aware of the potential deadliness of matches. She often tells a story about when her house caught on fire when she was a little girl, and she and her brothers had to wear clothes that smelled like smoke for years as a result. Momma and Joey get "all sad and sobby" when she tells this story, but Byron and Kenny have heard it so many times that they think it is "kind of funny" and have even given it a name: "Momma's Smokey the Bear story." Momma had caught him lighting matches the last time about a week previously and had put him on punishment for a month, and she swears that the next time she catches him starting fires, she is going to burn him.
Byron does not take the warning seriously, and it is not even a week later when he goes into the bathroom and locks the door. Kenny senses that his brother is up to no good and peeks through the keyhole to witness Byron making a "bunch of little toilet paper parachutes," lighting them on fire, and dropping them into the toilet, pretending that they are Nazi fliers getting shot down over the Flint River. Byron, playing the role of the parachutists, screams every time his little paper creations go down in flames, then he flushes them down the toilet. It is not long before Momma comes upstairs to see what all the commotion is about. She smells smoke and immediately hits the bathroom door with her shoulder, causing it to fly open and startle Byron, who is in the act of disposing of his seventh Nazi. Enraged, Momma snatches her son by the neck and drags him down the stairs, throwing him onto the sofa.
Momma tells Joetta to get her a book of matches from the kitchen, but Joey bursts into tears and refuses, pleading for mercy for her brother. Momma then tells Kenny to get the matches, but he is too frightened to do so. Finally she orders Byron to stay where he is and goes to the kitchen to get them herself. Joey begs Byron to run away, but he seems hypnotized and does not move until Momma returns with the matches, a jar of Vaseline, and a Band-Aid. Joey then places herself between Byron and Momma, trying to prevent her mother from carrying out her threat. Momma takes Joey aside and explains to her that she needs to make Byron understand that he must stop his dangerous activities before he hurts someone; she also reminds Joey that she "swore to God" that if Byron started lighting matches again she would burn...
(The entire section is 632 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
When Momma asks Byron and Kenny to go to Mitchell's store to get some milk, bread, and tomato paste for her, Byron predictably complains, but Momma makes him go with Kenny anyway. As the boys are leaving, Byron asks for money to pay for the groceries but Momma tells him to just sign for them. Byron immediately concludes that the family is on welfare. Momma tells him that although the family has received government aid in the past, they do not now. The Watsons have simply negotiated an arrangement with Mr. Mitchell to pay their monthly grocery bill all at once, on payday. Byron does not quite believe Momma, and he continues to carp about how embarrassed he will be to sign for welfare food at Mr. Mitchell's store. Momma, angry at Byron's malingering and snobbish attitude, puts her foot down and threatens dire consequences if the boys do not leave immediately. Byron pouts all the way to the store, and when he and Kenny have gathered the groceries, he makes Kenny stand in the checkout line alone to sign for them. When Kenny tells Mr. Mitchell that he needs to put the food on the welfare list, Mr. Mitchell laughs and tells him exactly what Momma had said, that signing for the food just means that their father is going to pay for it all at once instead of a little at a time. Byron, who is listening to Mr. Mitchell from the magazine section, believes what the store owner says even though he had not believed Momma. The information is like a revelation to him, and it is full of possibilities; Byron laments that they had had a chance to get "a bagful of free food" just for signing and that all they had gotten were the three items Momma had requested.
A week later, Kenny is walking down the alley behind Mitchell's store when he is almost hit in the head by a Swedish Creme cookie. Byron then drops out of a green apple tree, holding a big bag of cookies and a green apple. To Kenny's surprise, his brother offers him some cookies. He looks to see if there are bugs on them or something, but they are clean. Kenny is still suspicious because Byron is being "too nice," but then he notices that there is a crumpled-up Swedish Cremes bag on the ground and realizes that Byron has already eaten a bag and a half of the delicacies by himself. Kenny suddenly understands that Byron has gotten the cookies from Mitchell's store by signing for them without Momma or Dad's permission, and Kenny cannot tell on him because he has eaten of the forbidden treats, too....
(The entire section is 670 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
One evening, Momma is making dinner and Kenny is doing his homework when Byron walks in with a hat on. Seeing them, he tries to make a quick exit. Momma stops him and makes him take off his hat, only to discover that his head is covered with a blue and white handkerchief. Momma knows immediately that Byron has done something that his father has explicitly forbidden him to do: he has gotten a "conk," a process that has left his hair "reddish brown, straight, stiff and slick-looking." Momma, furious, asks Byron:
Is this straight mess more attractive than your own hair? Did those chemicals give you better-looking hair than me and your daddy and God gave you?
When Momma tells Byron that he looks like a clown, Byron retorts that he does not see anything wrong with his new hairdo and that he thinks "Mexican-style hair" looks "cool." Momma warns him that he may not be feeling the same way once his daddy gets through with him, and she sends him to his room.
Kenny tells Joey about Byron's hair as soon as she arrives home from church, and the two of them go upstairs to wait with their big brother. Kenny takes the opportunity to give Byron a hard time because Byron is already in trouble and will not be able to get back at him. Joey is shocked when she sees Byron's hair and admonishes him to wash it out before Dad gets home. Byron finally tells Joey that what he has done to his hair does not wash out; it will be gone only when it grows out. Always protective of her oldest sibling, Joey asks Byron "who did this to [him]," and Kenny answers instinctively and correctly that Buphead is the culprit. Kenny continues to take the opportunity to torment Byron, and Byron compares his situation to that of a "top-dog wolf" who is injured or otherwise weakened, with Kenny playing the part of the "little jive wolves in the pack" who want to take advantage of the situation and overthrow him.
When the children hear the sound of Dad's car parking in the driveway, Joey starts "blubbering," Byron shows his nervousness swinging his legs back and forth rapidly off the side of the bed, and Kenny continues his teasing by pretending to play a funeral song on a bugle. They listen as Momma tells Dad that there is a "surprise that one of [his] little darlings" has for him, then calls Byron downstairs. Dad is amazingly calm when he sees Byron's hair,...
(The entire section is 624 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
After their telephone conversation with Grandma Sands, Momma and Dad start acting "real strange." Momma starts writing copiously in a notebook, and Dad starts buying all kinds of things for the Brown Bomber. After a few days, the Brown Bomber looks terrific, and Dad says that it needs only one "final touch." With his typical flair for the dramatic, Dad brings home a special something in a small bag, calling it "the height of technology...the ultimate in American knowledge...the pinnacle of Western civilization." The amazing item turns out to be a "smelly green pine tree," and while the rest of the family groans, Joey is delighted to receive the honor of hanging it from the rearview mirror.
On Saturday, Kenny wakes up early and watches Dad brush his teeth and shave in the bathroom. Dad asks if he wants him to lather him up, too, like he used to do when Kenny was little, but Kenny says he is too old for that now. Dad says that it will not be long before Kenny will be shaving along with him, which makes Kenny feel very proud.
After he is done in the bathroom, Dad leaves the house and will not say where he is going. When he returns, he makes the entire family walk outside, single file and with their eyes closed, holding onto the shoulder of the person in front of them. When they get to the Brown Bomber, Dad chooses Kenny to unveil something very special in the middle of the dashboard. With great fanfare, Kenny uncovers a brand new "true-Tone AB-700 model Ultra Glide" record player. The children are ecstatic, but Momma, worried about the expense, is a little perturbed and stalks back to the house. Dad is disappointed with her reaction, but this does not stop him from putting on a show for the kids, acting out the part of the man who sold him this example of high technology, the precursor of today's automobile stereo systems. Byron runs into the house to get his favorite records, and when he comes back out, Momma follows him, fussing at him about stomping on the stairs and slamming the screen door. Kenny knows that Momma is using Byron as an excuse to come back out and join in the fun. The first record Dad plays is a favorite of his and Momma's; after that, he allows the kids to play four songs each. When the family has enjoyed the Ultra-Glide for a good long while, Momma tells Dad that it is time to turn it off; they have something important to say.
Momma announces to the children that they will all be...
(The entire section is 663 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
On Sunday, Kenny again gets up early, and he finds his father in the Brown Bomber listening to records on the Ultra Glide. Kenny joins him, and after they sit companionably through "a couple of jive songs," Kenny asks Dad if Byron really has to go to Alabama. After thinking for a minute, Dad tells Kenny that though they will all miss Byron, he has some important things to learn, and despite all that Momma and Dad have done in an effort to guide him, Byron is not progressing in the right direction. Dad asks Kenny if he remembers some of the things he has seen on the news about events going on in the South right now, and Kenny recalls seeing "really mad White people...screaming and giving dirty finger signs to some little Negro kids who were trying to go to school." Dad tells Kenny that it is a tough and hostile world that Byron will soon have to face and that he will need to be ready. Dad hopes that by spending time down South, Byron will not only get "an idea of the kind of place the world can be" but he will also be away from the temptations that he cannot seem to escape in Flint.
Later, Joey and Kenny are playing in the living room when their neighbor Mrs. Davidson comes over. Having heard that the Watsons are leaving for a while, she has brought a gift for Joey so Joey will not forget about her. Joey carefully opens the gift and discovers an angel made of white clay with "big wings and a halo made out of straw." Joey is a little disturbed when Mrs. Davidson tells her that the angel looks like her, but she is polite and thanks the woman kindly. When Mrs. Davidson has gone, Momma goes upstairs to talk to her little girl. She tells Joey that she is proud of her behavior and asks her what is wrong. Joey is troubled that the angel reminds Mrs. Davidson of her; in Joey's estimation, it doesn't look like her at all because it is white. Momma gently tells Joey to keep the angel and suggests that she might get to like it someday, but Joey hides it in a drawer under her socks.
Everyone has been busy getting ready for the upcoming trip except Byron. On the night before they are scheduled to leave, Momma and Dad tell Byron that he will be sleeping in their room that night. Joey, in an attempt to keep her brother out of trouble, has told their parents that Byron is planning to run away to Buphead's house so he will not have to go to Alabama; now his plans to make a "prison break" have been foiled. At nine o'clock the next...
(The entire section is 688 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
When the Watsons finally cross the border between Michigan and Ohio, they pull over at a rest stop just outside of Toledo. The children are impressed with the area, which looks like it is "chopped right out of the forest and [has] picnic tables made out of giant logs." They are disgusted by the outhouses at the rest stop, however; there is no running water, and the toilets consist of a seat placed over a "great big, open black hole" from which emanates a terrible smell. Momma tells Byron that he had better get used to this type of outhouse because that is what Grandma Sands has at her house. Grandma Sands thinks "a house is a whole lot nicer place if the facilities are outside."
As the family progresses south through Ohio, the children fall asleep, and Kenny awakens just before they arrive in Cincinnati. Although Momma has planned for them to stay the night in a motel there, Dad is determined to try to drive straight through to Alabama. At first Momma is not happy with this change in their itinerary, but when Dad points out that they will save a lot of money this way, she is a little more accepting. The children sleep through most of Ohio and Kentucky, and when Kenny next awakens, the family is at a rest stop in Tennessee. There are no bathrooms here; the rest stop has only a water pump and a picnic table. When Dad turns the headlights of the Brown Bomber off, they are plunged into "the blackest night anyone [has] ever seen." Momma announces that they are in the Appalachian Mountains, and although the air is wonderfully clear and the stars look bigger and more numerous than the children have ever seen, there is a certain ominous feeling that is not helped when Momma is furious at Dad for disregarding her plans and driving the family "straight into Hell!"
Byron and Kenny use the nearby trees to go to the bathroom, and Kenny, trying to pinpoint the reason for his feeling that something bad is going to happen, asks Byron if there are snakes in the area. Byron replies that it is not snakes that he is worried about; it is the people: "crackers and rednecks...that ain't never seen no Negroes before." Byron is afraid that if the Watsons are caught out there by white men in the deserted wilderness, they will be hung, or worse. No one feels safe until they are back in the car and riding down the interstate once again. As he drives, Dad sticks his hand out of the window and tells everyone to do the same so they can...
(The entire section is 566 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary
Byron, Kenny, Joey, and Momma sleep for most of the rest of the way as Dad drives through the night and into the next day, covering nearly a thousand miles over eighteen straight hours and bringing the family safely to Alabama. The Ultra Glide stops working, and Dad, exhausted, resorts to listening to country music (which he hates) on the radio. Kenny wakes up and spends a little time keeping Dad company as they traverse the final miles of the trip, but he falls asleep again before they reach their destination. Finally, he awakens to the sound of Momma honking the horn of the Brown Bomber "like she [is] crazy." The Watsons have arrived at Grandma Sands's house. Looking out the window, Kenny is surprised to find that Birmingham actually looks a lot like Flint, Michigan.
Byron, Kenny, and Joetta step out of the car into the intense Alabama heat. The door of the "regular little old house" before them opens and out comes a
teeny-weeny, old, old, old woman that look[s] just like Momma would if someone shrank her down about five sizes and sucked all the juice out of her.
She waves her cane and demands why the family is there today when they had not been expected until Monday. Kenny and Joey have never met Grandma Sands, and Byron had been only four when he had seen her last. In light of her reputation as a formidable force, this little, wizened crone is nothing like what the children had expected. In a raucous, emotional homecoming, Momma hugs Grandma Sands and introduces her offspring while Dad comes up for his share of "hugs and tears too." Kenny is filled with anticipation when Byron steps up to greet Grandma; these are "the two meanest, most evil people [he's] ever known," and from the looks of things, Kenny estimates that Byron will destroy the old woman in short order. To Kenny's disappointment, however, Byron is uncharacteristically subdued and respectful, and when Grandma predicts that they are going to "get on just fine," he keeps his head down and smilingly responds with a quiet, "Yes, ma'am." Grandma tells Byron that he can help Mr. Robert out with chores, and Momma reacts with surprise; she has obviously never heard about the gentleman.
After Grandma Sands has reveled in the experience of having her family all together once again, she begins to think about what she will feed them for dinner and asks Byron if he is good at following directions. Byron...
(The entire section is 541 words.)
Chapter 12 Summary
The heat is stifling in Birmingham. When Kenny awakens after a fitful sleep on his first morning at Grandma Sands's house, he finds that Byron is already gone from the bed they share. Looking out the window, Kenny sees Byron, Dad, and Mr. Robert standing under a tree with a dog, and he quickly runs out "to be with the guys." Mr. Robert tells the boys that they will soon become accustomed to the heat. He says the dog, Toddy, "won't hunt no more." Mr. Robert relates that, in his day, Toddy was "the best coon dog in all Alabama," but now, just like Mr. Robert himself, the dog has gotten old and is at the point where "his mind [tells] him to do [something] but his body [won't] cooperate." Showing his obvious fondness for the dog, Mr. Robert tells the guys that he and Toddy have saved each others' lives. When Byron asks how he saved the dog's life, Mr. Robert describes an incident that happened one day while they were out hunting. Toddy had flushed out an especially crafty coon and had chased him into the water; the coon had turned around and held the dog's head underwater "till he drowneded him." Mr. Roberts rescued Toddy from the water, dragged him to shore, and turned him upside down to get the water out of him. He then held the dog's mouth shut while he breathed right into his nose until Toddy regained consciousness. The boys are impressed with Mr. Robert's story. Kenny realizes he is hungry and asks Dad when they are going to eat. Dad replies that he is the only one who has not eaten yet and instructs him to go in to see his mother and grandmother in the kitchen.
Kenny finds Momma and Grandma Sands conversing animatedly. Momma is asking a million questions, catching up on what has been going on in the area since she left to marry Dad, and Grandma Sands is "yakking" right along, laughing with a cackle that reminds Kenny of the Wicked Witch of the West from the movie The Wizard of Oz. Joey is sitting drowsily on Momma's lap, and Kenny gets some breakfast and sits at the table with everyone while Momma and Grandma Sands talk some more; he listens as the two women discuss
how much trouble people (are) having with some white people down here, who got married to who, how many kids this one had, how many times that one was in jail, a bunch of boring junk like that.
Momma seems especially concerned about Mr. Robert, and when Grandma says that she and he have been "good friends...
(The entire section is 619 words.)
Chapter 13 Summary
Kenny had only "halfway listened" when Grandma Sands had warned them about going to Collier's Landing to swim, so when he and Joey and Byron come to the crossroads that requires them to choose between the Landing and the public swimming area, he is anxious to choose the former. A posted, handwritten warning signed by Joe Collier only intensifies his curiosity, but Joey and even Byron have no inclination to explore the forbidden area. Grandma Sands has said that there are dangerous whirlpools at Collier's Landing that recently caused the death of a young boy. When Joey asks what a whirlpool is, Byron obligingly explains that a "Wool Pooh" is Winnie the Pooh's "evil twin brother," who resides underwater to "snatch stupid kids down with him." Kenny does not understand why his usually rebellious and adventurous older brother is suddenly so boring and compliant with the rules. He decides that it is time for him to have a "Fantastic Adventure" on his own. As Byron and Joey head toward the public swimming area, Kenny goes by himself to Collier's Landing.
Kenny is delighted with the water at Collier's Landing, which is "dark, dark blue, and best of all...about a hundred degrees cooler" than anything he has encountered since coming to Alabama. Despite another warning sign, he ventures into the water, trying to catch some of the slow-moving fish lazily darting about right by the shore. His attention is diverted by the sight of a big, green turtle swimming enticingly back and forth in the deeper water. As he steps forward and tries to grab the creature, the rocky ground beneath his feet begins to slide away. Kenny tries to swim back to shore but is inexplicably pulled underwater. Terrified, he desperately punches the water with his arms and kicks with his legs, but he goes down again. Just when he is sure that he will never come back up, he sees the Wool Pooh, "big and gray with hard square-looking fingers" and an empty void where the face should be. He then catches sight of a little girl in a pretty blue dress, with big, yellow wings and something around her head; it is an angel who looks just like Joey. Kenny manages to get his head above water one more time, and when he is pulled down again, he realizes that Byron is in the water with him. Byron tries to grab Kenny but the Wool Pooh yanks him away too fast, and Kenny wonders if, when a person is about to die, he is allowed to see all those who are dear to him so he can say...
(The entire section is 558 words.)
Chapter 14 Summary
Kenny spends the next few days in a state of shocked lethargy. Byron has made him promise not to tell anyone what happened at Collier's Landing, and the family simply assumes that Kenny's weakness and malaise is just a reaction to the heat. On Sunday, when Joey leaves for church, Kenny says good-bye to her and notices that she is wearing "little lacy white socks and her shiny, shiny black shoes." He then goes outside and sits under a tree; he is just dozing off when he hears a sound "like a far-off thunderstorm coming," followed by an eerie silence. Dad and Byron look out from inside the house, wondering what has caused the noise, but Kenny, too tired to even be curious, leans back against the tree and closes his eyes. He is about to fall asleep again when he hears Momma scream; a neighbor has just stopped by and reported that a bomb has been dropped on Joey's church.
Kenny stands in the house in a daze as the rest of the family leaves precipitously for the church. He goes to the porch and sees all the neighbors racing down the street, and he automatically follows. When Kenny arrives at the church, he sees surreal images of his family holding onto each other outside the ruined building and a man carrying a little girl in his arms; it looks like the man has been painting "with red, red paint." Kenny notices in particular that the girl is wearing "black shiny, shiny shoes." As he wanders into the church itself, he is surprised that no one stops him, and he catches glimpses of confusion and carnage all around him, smoke and billowing dust obscuring "Bibles and coloring books thrown all over the place." Kenny comes upon a "shiny, shiny black shoe lying halfway underneath some concrete," and as he reaches down to pick it up, he envisions the Wool Pooh hanging onto the other end of it. Kenny gives the shoe a desperate tug and it pops loose from a frilly white sock; in a panic, he slips unnoticed out of the church, past "people lying around in little balls on the grass crying and twitching...squeezing each other and shaking." Hoping that the Wool Pooh is not following him, Kenny walks quickly and quietly back to Grandma Sands's house.
When Kenny gets back to his room, he sits on his bed and examines the torn shoe he has brought with him. He believes it is Joey's and that she is dead, and he tries to remember if he had been mean to her that morning. Kenny is surprised when Joey appears before him, demanding to know how he...
(The entire section is 713 words.)
Chapter 15 Summary
Joey does not know what a close call she had when her church was bombed in Birmingham, and the Watsons all return to Flint before she has a chance to find out. Momma and Dad are most worried about Kenny, who continues to exhibit signs of shock. They do not know that he almost died at Collier's Landing. Although they suspect that he might have seen something in the aftermath of the bombing at the church, they are not sure because he insists that he only left Grandma Sands's house that day to tell them Joey was all right.
Kenny has been disappearing for long periods of time, and no one knows where he goes. He has been hiding behind the couch, in the quiet, dark area that Byron used to call the "World-Famous Watson Pet Hospital." Over the years, if something bad happened to one of the many pets in the household, the afflicted animal would "crawl in that space, and wait to see if they were going to get better." Like a wounded creature, Kenny holes up behind the couch, waiting to see if "magic powers" will come to him and either heal him or let him die. When Kenny comes out to be with the family, Momma tries to get him to play with Rufus and Cody, Byron, or Joetta, but he is just not interested. He spends more and more of his time in the Watson Pet Hospital, even sleeping there at night.
Byron finally figures out where Kenny is hiding, and he is remarkably sensitive about giving his little brother the privacy he craves. Kenny knows that Byron has told Momma and Dad where he is because sometimes they sit on the couch and talk about things like "what a nice kid" Kenny is, as if they had practiced what to say. Byron begins sleeping on the couch at night, and during the day he discreetly tries to coax Kenny into taking part in activities such as watching TV with him. One day, Byron pops his head over the back of the couch and insists that Kenny accompany him upstairs to the bathroom, where he proudly shows him a single, long hair growing from his chin. Impressed, Kenny leans into the mirror to see if anything is growing on his own face, but when he sees his sad visage, it is as if floodgates open, and he begins to cry uncontrollably. Byron sits with Kenny on the floor, and Kenny sobs for a long time. When he can speak again, he asks Byron why people would want to hurt little kids like they did at the Birmingham church. After thinking seriously about what he is going to say, Byron asserts that he believes such...
(The entire section is 831 words.)
The setting is very important in The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963. Well aware of the ongoing fight for civil rights, Momma and Dad were intent on instilling in their children the integrity and strength of spirit needed to survive in a world that was often unfriendly to people of their race. By traveling to Grandma Sands's home in the Deep South, the family became intimately involved in one of the pivotal events of the times.
In 1963, the year that the story takes place, the civil rights movement was at its height in America. Although African Americans had been guaranteed equal rights in the Declaration of Independence and in amendments to the Constitution, in practice they were still forced to endure discrimination in daily situations. Things were especially bad in the South, where state and local laws fostered discrimination in areas such as education and housing. Segregation was enforced through a system of separate schools and facilities for people of color. Unfair voting requirements prohibited African Americans from participating in elections, and they were also systematically denied service at hotels, restaurants, and other facilities.
A number of organizations and individuals challenged discrimination, standing up for justice in the face of danger and even death. Thurgood Marshall, Ralph Abernathy, Medgar Evers, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were only a few of the great leaders who sought to change conditions for African Americans through nonviolent resistance. Ordinary citizens from all over the country, blacks and whites alike, converged on the South, staging demonstrations, sit-ins, and boycotts. Inspired by Rosa Parks, a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, who defied the laws that required African Americans to give up their seats on public buses, "Freedom Riders" rode buses throughout the South in an attempt to force the federal government to enforce statutes banning segregation in...
(The entire section is 461 words.)