Last Reviewed on March 10, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 717
Bucking the Sarge, by Christopher Paul Curtis, is a coming-of-age story. The protagonist, Luther, begins as a fairly ordinary middle school boy, albeit one with a domineering mother (aptly referred to as "the Sarge") and an unusual after-school job, as a caretaker in an adult men’s group home. Otherwise, he has concerns similar to other boys his age: his upcoming science fair project, an unrequited crush, his goofy friend Sparky, and the depressing significance of the ancient condom in his wallet.
Throughout the story, though, Luther gradually comes to realize that he is bigger than all of these things. As a result of listening to his own feelings, taking inspiration from philosophical quotes, and developing a strong moral sense of right and wrong through observing firsthand the damage the Sarge is creating in the community, Luther finally grows beyond her influence. When he leaves Flint in triumph, having checked off all the items on his list, he has grown into a new person, a young man in his own right, determined to do good in the world on his own terms.
The story is set in Curtis’s own hometown of Flint, Michigan. According to “In His Own Words: A Conversation with Christopher Paul Curtis," an essay found at the end of the novel, the author claims that some inspiration for the book was drawn from his personal observations. A young man he once noticed sitting outside a group home for developmentally challenged adults, waiting for hours until his mother finished work, inspired at least part of Luther’s character. The author says he was further inspired by the corporate malfeasance epidemic of the late nineteen-nineties. The guilty parties admitted to doing terrible things in the quest for more money. He explains being able to understand their greed, the overwhelming desire for money and the privileges it buys, and used this to build the character of the Sarge. When it comes to Flint and the gritty details described in his novel, the author claims, “I don’t believe my writing about Flint is negative, I try to portray my hometown in an honest way, scars and all.” In this case, those scars include brutal evictions, rampant unemployment, abuses of the care system, middle school dropouts, and ruthless slumlords with thuggish cronies at their beck and call.
It is impossible to ignore the larger context of the story, as it takes place in the difficult environment of a poverty-ridden slum in Flint. The author himself expresses some understanding of the Sarge, although she is depicted by Luther, the narrator, as an irredeemable character. However, the Sarge has seen more of the world than Luther and her actions, though ruthless, occasionally seem to come from a place of fear: essentially, the Sarge has chosen to become a villain rather than allow herself to become a victim. The community in which she reigns—and raises her son—is a trap for young people of color. As Luther’s friend Sparky explains,
Nowadays if you don’t go to college you might as well start practicing saying ‘Would you like to Jumbo-Size that Chuckie meal?’ Back in the day my uncle said even if you didn’t finish high school you could still get a job on the line in the factory and make enough cash to buy a new Buick every four years or buy a house or buy some clothes from Hudson’s or afford cable TV or a legal satellite. You can’t do nothing with two minimum-wage jobs now. Seems like the only way to get paid is being a stickup kid, booming weed or suing someone.
No wonder the Sarge is determined to break away from such a trap, and money is her escape route. This money comes at a cost to the people who suffer under her strict and ruthless conditions, as she is a loan shark, a slumlord, and a cheater of the government. In such a context, it is amazing that Luther is able to remain good, or develop a sense of moral righteousness at all. The fact that he manages such a dramatic escape begs the question: is there really any other way out f the cycles of poverty and abuse that characterize so many urban areas in the United States?