Last Reviewed on March 10, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 960
Fifteen-year-old Luther is upset to discover his wallet missing. He has been fixated on the upcoming science fair, which he is determined to win for the third year in a row. His friend Sparky has the wallet, though, and gives back the missing items one by one, while listing all the reasons Luther has it good in the otherwise relatively destitute town of Flint. They drive to Luther’s job as a caretaker for an adult care home, which is owned by his mother, "the Sarge." Luther reflects that he doesn’t mind living in Flint, as he aspires to be a philosopher. Whenever he is faced with a tricky question, Luther looks to philosophical quotes for a matching answer.
The Sarge brings a new client into the group home, an old man named Chester X. He needs “special care”—meaning that he is a lucrative source of income and hopefully not long for the world—so she assigns him to share Luther’s bedroom. Luther isn’t pleased, but there is no arguing with the Sarge. The Sarge does not have rules, but mandates. She takes advantage of the system by serving her clients the cheapest options while getting reimbursed for expensive purchases. She runs a slumlord ring of old houses, which she sometimes has her thuggish employee Darnell burn down. If anyone, including her son or Darnell, attempts to cross her, the Sarge does not hesitate to use physical force and threats to make them obey.
While painting a rental house, Luther finds a chip of old paint that gives him inspiration for his science fair project. His only worry is whether Shayla Patrick, the girl of his dreams (who he can’t seem to stop insulting), might beat him. At last year’s science fair, she had a superior project, but Luther was declared the winner. They have had negative interactions ever since, although Luther thinks he is in love with her.
Darnell forcibly evicts a family from one of the rental home, which includes one of Luther's classmates, Bo, and Bo's sweet little sister. Luther feels bad for them and collects all the little girl’s papers that had been proudly posted on the fridge. At school, Luther doesn’t see Bo anymore, so he goes to the burger restaurant where Bo works. There, he manages to hand over the bag of papers for the little sister. This leads him to think about the Sarge’s philosophy of milking the system, getting ahead at any cost and only taking care of “me and mine.” Luther is determined to prove her wrong somehow.
When Luther finds a bag of stashed pills hidden in the mattress, he realizes that Chester X is preparing to kill himself. When confronted, Chester doesn’t deny this. Instead, he explains that he wants to retain some power over his own life, instead of giving it all to the Sarge. He tries to convince Luther that the Sarge is ruining his life, too, and that they should run off to Florida together. Luther refuses, although he recognizes the logic behind Chester’s arguments. Chester and Luther begin playing cards together every night. Chester says Luther lacks confidence, hence his romantic problems with Shayla. He repeatedly tries to convince Luther to go to Florida.
At the science fair, Luther gets a surprise—he and Shayla are tied for first place. Their parents are invited to the awards ceremony. When his project is shown, Luther realizes that his topic—the hazards of lead paint—directly targets the Sarge. She uses lead paint in the rental houses. After the ceremony, the Sarge tells Luther he has four days to move out. Darnell takes great pleasure in stripping Luther of his money and van keys. As a miserable Luther walks home, Shayla’s family gives Luther a ride, and finally they have a positive interaction together.
The Sarge calls to remind Luther to take her receipts to the bank. While getting the safe deposit box key, Luther finds another, secret key. He takes both to the bank and finds a box full of files detailing all of the illegal activities his mother has been doing, including the tens of thousands of dollars she has unscrupulously collected. He also learns that the Sarge cheated in last year’s science fair, bribing the judge so that Luther would win instead of Shayla. Luther also discovers that his college fund, which the Sarge was supposed to be depositing his wages from the group-home into, only contains $900. He decides to get revenge.
With the money from the Sarge’s safe deposit box, Luther takes all the group home clients and his friend Sparky to the mall. They buy designer shoes and suits. Luther then convinces Sparky to stay and watch over the men while he makes his escape.
Luther makes a list of all the things he has to do before leaving. He sells the van and keeps the money. Then he makes copies of all the Sarge’s secret documents, leaving her only Xeroxes, and opens his own safe deposit box for the originals. At school, he collects his gold medal from the science fair, and his transcripts, before saying goodbye to his favorite teacher. Then he has Darnell’s car transferred into his own name. He drives to the burger restaurant and gives a box of money to Bo. Back at the group home, he says goodbye to all the men and Sparky before he and Chester X get into the car and drive off. On the way, they stop at Shayla’s house to return the gold medal from the previous year's science fair, which should rightfully have been hers. Then, they leave Flint together, headed for Florida.
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