At the age of fifteen, Luther T. Farrell helps his mother, known as Sarge, run a real estate empire in the ghetto of Flint, Michigan. His father is dead, and Luther has been raised by his mother, who left teaching to take a lucrative job on the Buick assembly line in Flint. She has since branched out into shady business operations, which she is grooming her only son to run. Luther has heard stories concerning his mother: The rental properties and group homes she owns barely meet city codes; she uses the residents in her homes to gouge the Social Security system; most disturbing, she runs a loan shark operation and even uses an intimidating second-in-command, Darnell Dixon, as muscle.
Luther, meanwhile, has his own ambitions: He wants to study philosophy at Harvard University. In return for the hours of work Luther has put in, Sarge has been putting aside an education fund, now worth more than ninety thousand dollars. That money is Luther’s ticket out of Flint. His only friend, the goofy Sparky, lacking such resources, schemes to get out of Flint by suing someone rich.
Luther discovers a stash of pills in the mattress of one of his mother’s tenants. He suspects the tenant, Chester X. Stockard, is hoarding the pills to use to commit suicide. The encounter, though, leads the two to become friends. Chester tells Luther bluntly that his mother is using him and will never let him go. Chester advises Luther to move with him to Florida. Luther refuses, but his situation changes when his science fair project wins a gold medal (it is his third gold medal, an unprecedented feat in his school’s history).
Luther’s science project concerns the dangers of lead paint and the corrupt landlords in Flint who continue to use it. The project’s findings outrage Flint’s mayor, who attends the award ceremony and promises a swift crackdown. It has not occurred to Luther, however, that his mother will be a prime target of this crackdown. After the assembly, she quietly tells Luther that when she returns from a weekend trip to Washington he must be out of the house.
Luther decides that before he leaves he will take with him the college fund that is rightfully his. He goes to the bank but finds only nine hundred dollars in the account. Ever cool, Luther cleans out his mother’s safety deposit box, finding more than fifty thousand dollars in it. He then uses his power of attorney to sell the group home’s van, which, in addition to the money from the deposit box, gives him roughly the amount his mother owed him.
In his mother’s safety deposit box, Luther also finds evidence that Sarge had bribed the judge of last year’s science fair, so he visits the girl who came in second in that fair and gives her his medal. He sets about tying up other loose ends as well: He gives new clothes to his mother’s tenants and fifteen thousand dollars to a classmate whose family Sarge had evicted. He promises Sparky that he will send for him in three months. He transfers ownership of Darnell’s expensive car to himself. Then, Luther and Chester take the car and head to Florida.
“Christopher Paul Curtis.” Contemporary Authors Series: New Revised Series . Vol. 119. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 2003. Analyzes Curtis’s early life and his first two works. Cites as themes the importance of self-respect, the need to accept life as it is, and the validation the self...
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