illustrated close-up of Kenny Watson with fire in the background behind him

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963

by Christopher Paul Curtis

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What is the conflict of the story The Watsons Go to Birmigham - 1963?

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There are personal, familial, and societal conflicts in this novel. The familial conflict centers around Kenny's older brother, Byron, who has become the neighborhood bully in Flint, Michigan, where the family lives. Byron is so narcissistic that he kisses his image in the mirror of the family car, causing his lips to get stuck on the frozen mirror. Byron is also a pyromaniac who sets objects afire. Momma and Dad are concerned that Byron is so ill behaved, and they decide to send him to live with Grandma Sands, a stern woman who lives in Birmingham, Alabama.

After the Watsons drive to Birmingham, they become involved in a larger conflict--the Civil Rights movement. They are in the city during the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which actually occurred in September of 1963 and in which four African-American girls were tragically killed. In dealing with this incident, as well as an incident in which he almost drowns, Kenny, the main character, must also confront his inner demons (which he refers to as "Wool Puh"), and this is another conflict in the story. The "Wool Puh" is his misunderstanding of the pronunciation of "whirlpool," and it is also his fear of death and the unknown that he must confront as he grows up.

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There are a number of conflicts in the story, but the main one is the difficulty the family is having with oldest son Byron's rebellious behavior.  Byron, a young teen, is sullen and rude.   His friends are not positive influences in his life, and Byron appears to be headed for trouble, ditching school, playing with fire, refusing to study, and straightening his hair.  Byron's behavior affects his relationships with all the members of his family. The family takes drastic measures, intending to send Byron to live with his Grandmother in Birmingham for awhile.

Other conflicts in the story involve Kenny, the main character.  Kenny has difficulties with friendships - his former best friend turned out to be a thief, and he must reconcile his feelings about a new boy at school whom the other kids tease. The biggest conflict for Kenny, however, comes at the end of the book.  While in Birmingham, Kenny almost drowns, and he also experiences the aftermath of the tragic bombing of a nearby church in which four young girls are killed.

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