Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Curtis’s earlier characters were young African Americans who confronted questions of identity within the racially charged environment of the Civil Rights era. In present-day Flint, Luther Farrell confronts a more personal kind of oppression and a more insidious system of degradation: his own mother. In this respect, Bucking the Sarge works less as a social indictment of white oppression and more as a traditional bildungsroman. The victims are black, but so is the victimizer—Sarge herself. The novel is a call for compassion, as Luther is repeatedly moved by the desperation of his neighbors.

More to the point, the novel, like many of the most enduring works of young adult fiction, celebrates the dreams of a gifted teenager. Luther’s aspirations (parodied by his friend Sparky) soar beyond the limits of his surroundings. Curtis himself was a product of Flint who worked for years at a car assembly plant while he dreamed of being a writer. The novel also argues a moral dimension to character. Luther fashions a private moral code against a larger universe of corruption. Indeed, like the resourceful child heroes of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain (both influences that Curtis acknowledges), Luther demonstrates an innate moral sensibility that will not tolerate an unrighted wrong, as well as a knack for self-preservation and a supreme commitment to personal freedom. That exhilarating combination gives the narrative its optimistic—even inspirational—feel.