Literary Qualities

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Curtis is a versatile writer, not one to develop a formula. The plot of his first novel, The Watson's Go to Birmingham—1963, is episodic in nature. Each chapter is a novella of the Watson family's doings that moves the story foreword to its poignant and dramatic conclusion. In contrast, the plot for Bud, Not Buddy is linear in form with the young protagonist moving from one event to another with a developing goal in mind and eventual achievement of that goal. Both stories, however, are universal in their portrayal of family interactions, characters, and events.

Curtis is also a master of language. Throughout the story delightful examples of onomatopoeia tickle the tongue and activate the funny bone as inanimate objects spring to life. Parked cars grumble, "wugga, wugga, wugga." High heels go "tap, tap, tappity." Idling trains murmur "shuh, shuh, shuh." Grown men cry "muh-huh, muhhuh," and saxophones, in the hands of the inexperienced, shriek out "ahwronk, roozahga, baloopa."

The author's skill with alliteration comes through in names given to the jazzbands: "The Dusky Devastators of the Depression" and "The Nubian Knights of the NRA." But his style is not always so clownish. Curtis has a way with description that lifts the spirit and stretches the mind. He allows Bud, the down-to-earth, street-smart kid, to express himself in lyrical prose on occasions that touch his child heart. When Bud realizes that Miss Thomas, with her ring studded hands, is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen, he treats us to this observation:

When she talked, she moved her hands and fingers around and the lights from the ceiling and from the little candle on the table would bounce off all them diamonds and spark up in your eye and make you feel like you'd been hit with some kind of fairy dust, then you couldn't help but smile.

Curtis uses a metaphor of weather to show Bud's reaction to the Devastator's rehearsal. Until now he has not heard the band and in this first experience, he is immediately transported into a world of rain and thunder and Niagara Falls. Then Miss Thomas joins in and her song is like the sun emerging through clouds, lighting the world with its brilliance as she and Steady Eddie's magnificent saxophone speak to each other in a dialogue of exquisite notes.

The author's use of Depression era idioms and African-American dialect is careful and accurate, giving the reader a taste of the time and the characters. His band members, especially, speak a language that Bud has to decipher and he makes clear to the reader what he learns.

Perhaps the only credibility gap occurs in Bud's use of gangster slang from 1930s movies. From what we can tell, Bud is not a child who has ever attended a movie and no reference is made to his learning these expressions anywhere else.

As well, lectures from minor characters about current events sometimes interrupt the story line. Still, if the reader holds to the theme of learning, this "tell" rather than "show" becomes more acceptable. Certainly, these are small glitches in an otherwise thoroughly engaging story.


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In the United States, 1936 was one of the darkest years of the Great Depression. Desperate, homeless men and boys traveled the country on foot and by rail searching for work, any work that would keep body and soul together. Desperate women waited for their men to return, trying in any way possible to make a home for their children. Despite these efforts to keep families together, orphanages were overflowing with abandoned and parentless children and foster homes were few and far between.

It was against this background that Curtis developed his story of a child's search for family in the midwest towns of Flint and Grand Rapids, Michigan. While many stories of the Depression are concerned with the Dust Bowl and the plight of farmers in the Plains States or migrant workers in California, Bud, Not Buddy provides the reader with a different perspective on life in that era with the trials of a ten-year-old orphan runaway as a focal point.

Curtis sets the scene immediately when he has the orphanage director explain the Depression to Bud and his friend, Jerry, advising them to be grateful for yet another foster home placement. Both boys are wise enough to expect an uncertain reception wherever they are sent. As Bud puts it "Here we go again." In this same chapter, Curtis implicitly reveals the story's location, Flint, Michigan, through references to Bud's precious blue flyer featuring the local, limited engagement of a popular jazz band.

References to the Depression are made throughout the story as Bud embarks on his family search. He worries about gangsters such as Pretty Boy Floyd, Al Capone, and Baby Face Nelson. He conjectures that he, himself, may be on J. Edgar Hoover's ten most wanted list for the FBI or even be Public Enemy Number One.

When Bud and his friend, Bugs, set out to find the town of "Hooperville," on the outskirts of Flint, they discover it is a "cardboard jungle," a "shanty town." Here, displaced men and boys and a few families wait to board the freight trains that they hope will take them west to find work. Here, they encounter the Pinkerton Security Guards and Bud witnesses the senseless tragedies of destruction by fire and forced evacuation as the flimsy town goes up in flames.

Told through the eyes of the young protagonist, Bud, Not Buddy covers an amazing range of historical material. Bud, who knows little outside his first six years with his mother and life in the orphanage and foster homes for the last four, gets an education in economics, discrimination, sit-down strikes, telegrams, pullman porters, union organizers, and how to calculate distances on a map. Most importantly, he enters the wonderful world of a group of small time jazz musicians led by the irascible Herman E. Calloway, and learns what music can do for the soul.

All the characters are affected by the setting, some more than others, but none let us forget where we are or what time it is. History and setting confront the reader in Bud's narrative, when he refers to popular figures such as the Louisville Slugger and popular toys such as a magic decoder ring and Little-Big Books. He uses expressions such as "the copper would plug me," "he would rub me out," and "it would have been curtains," all idioms from gangster movies of the thirties. We understand the effects of poverty by his physical condition, he is small and always hungry. We share his homelessness as he sleeps under a "Christmas Tree" by the library and goes to a mission for meals. Moreover, everyone he meets seems given to musings and advice about the hazards of living in 1936 in the state of Michigan or anywhere else in the United States. We cannot miss the setting and though the editorializing gets a little heavy handed at times and Bud is often an observer, he is a strong enough character to keep the essence of the story his own.

Themes and Characters

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The major theme of Bud, Not Buddy, centers on the child's search for family. Motherless Bud has knocked around the Flint orphanage and a succession of foster homes long enough to know what he wants and what he does not. He would rather be on the lam. Besides, Bud remembers his mother; how she read to him at night, how they visited the library together, the important messages she gave him about his name and doors that open and close. They were a family and he treasures that "rememory." So, once he "busts out" of wrongful imprisonment in the Amos's garage, his latest foster home, Bud is on his own and after a few false starts, he heads on foot for Grand Rapids, looking for the man he is certain must be his father.

Curtis adeptly uses the archetype of the hero's journey to play out the plot. It is a quest for paradise lost, his life with his mother, and he finds enough helpers and obstacles along the way to challenge and satisfy any hero.

Bud already knows about dysfunctional families, but he discovers there are some of a different mold as he treks across the state. There is the "pretend" family at the mission who adopt him for breakfast, and the Hooverville family who share their meal and whose precocious daughter, Deza Malone, gives him his first kiss. There is the family of Lefty Lewis who provide him with a good night's sleep, new clothes, and a magnificent breakfast. There is Bugs, his blood brother, who reluctantly leaves him behind in the Hooverville stampede for the train. By the time he gets to Grand Rapids, Bud knows the kind of family he wants, but what he finds is far different from what he expected.

Occasionally, Bud's stream of consciousness narrative demands careful reading. One moment we are trapped with Bud in the Amos family shed attempting by every means possible to escape. The next, we are plummeted backward in time to the orphanage where we are witness to the terrifying events that gave Bud's friend, Bugs, his name. Then, just as quickly, we are back in the shed with Bud and his escape plans. The style is not one for a passive reader; it requires our constant attention.

Certain recurring motifs keep the story focused. Bud thinks about how ideas are like seeds, small to begin with, but growing into maple trees when you are not looking. Doors open and close for Bud, literally and figuratively. Some doors hold good things behind them, others hide monsters and sometimes it is hard to tell just what may be lying in wait. Then, there is the matter of the blanket that not many kids would think to take with them, he reasons, but which gives Bud peace and security in the lonely nights. Then there is hunger; Bud is always hungry and grateful for any meal he is given. Even muskrat stew, straight from the Hooverville pot, tastes delicious. Last, but not least, there is the importance of name. Bud's mother gave him his name for a special reason. He is to let no one ever call him Buddy, she says, so he constantly corrects people. Bud is indignant when the "pretend" mission family calls him Clarence until he figures out the game and even then he thinks there might have been a better one. In the end, Bud receives a new name from the jazz band musicians and is initiated into the group. His identity is secure.

These motifs reinforce a secondary theme. Bud, Not Buddy is a coming of age story, a story of internal growth and change and eventual acceptance of life as it is and can be. Everywhere he turns, Bud finds opening and closing doors, welcoming doors, doors that hide monsters, and doors that are locked against him. He discovers that there are some he must open himself if he is to find the life he yearns for. When he finds what he is seeking, he no longer needs his blanket and he is no longer hungry. Seeds, buds, and maple trees, also, are symbols of life and growth. Most important to Bud is his name. The giving and receiving of a name is a symbol as old as humankind. Bud finally receives the one he believes he was born for and knows that he is, again, a member of a family.

Learning, from others and by experience, is a secondary theme as well. Everywhere he turns, Bud finds somebody ready to teach him something and experiences that he can learn from. Practical things, like writing telegrams, map reading, and "riding the rails" become a part of his survival kit as do abstractions like kindness, commitment, courage, belonging, and love. Bud takes every lesson, good or bad, to heart, adding it to his personal philosophy and Bud Caldwell's "Rules and Things For a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself."

Bud Caldwell is a street kid, smart and tough, whose "eyes don't cry no more." He is a self-proclaimed liar, and, considering the few years he has been in the world, something of a philosopher. With mixed bits of Little Rascal and Shirley Temple in his personality, he is also compassionate, understanding, and able to see both sides of a situation even when he is on the receiving end of an insult as revealed by this incident at the mission:

I watched them walking away. My pretend brother looked back at me and stuck out his tongue, then reached up and took my pretend mother's hand. I couldn't really blame him. I don't think I'd be real happy about sharing my brown sugar and my folks with any strange kids either.

As the author of Bud Caldwell's "Rules and Things for a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself" he establishes his own creed. Some rules are very short: No. 3, If you got to tell a lie, Make sure it's simple and easy to remember. Others take longer to express: No. 8, Whenever an adult tells you to listen carefully and talks to you in a real calm voice, do not listen, run as fast as you can, because something real terrible is just around the corner. Especially if the cops are chasing you.

Tough as he is, Bud is not without the terrors that beset any ten-year-old. He believes in ghosts. He believes in vampires. He is afraid to be left in a strange room by himself. He sleeps with an open jackknife in his hand and his faithful blanket covering his head. The objects in Bud's suitcase are his only security. He turns to them again and again for security and comfort and puts himself to sleep by remembering the stories his mother read to him each night. But Bud's vivid imagination is not entirely given to holding off fears. Curtis comically captures Bud's relationship to story when he plays Twenty Thousand 'Leaks' under the Sea with a mop and cleaning bucket whispering a conversation between Captain Nemo and one of his sailors into the water.

Eventually, though, Bud begins to trust both himself and others. He finds, within the comforting safety of a new found "family," that those eyes that "don't cry no more" betray him at last, and children are not the only ones given to tears.

With the exception of Herman E. Calloway and Miss Thomas, the many other characters in Bud, Not Buddy, are relatively static. Their purpose in the story is to further Bud's education. The Amos family's mother is a borderline psychotic and her son is a murderous lout. Bugs and the too-good-to-be-true librarian make walk-on appearances, deliver their lines, and disappear—as does Jerry, Deza Malone, Lefty's family and the kindly family at the mission. Herman E. Calloway is a different story. He is a grumpy, self-righteous, domineering old man who refuses to acknowledge Bud's existence, even when the rest of the band members move for theoretical adoption. Though he is unreasonable and bad-tempered, the band members are faithful to him. He knows his business and keeps them well employed, so they endure his moods of depression and unsocial behavior. Calloway is a wellrounded character for whom the reader develops a hesitant sympathy, not really sure it is deserved until the very end.

Miss Thomas, the band's "vocal stylist," adds a touch of real feminine beauty to this male-dominated story. She understands Herman. She understands Bud. She is adored by Bud and the members of the band. We come to know her as a strong, confident woman, sympathetic, but firm, who takes no nonsense from Calloway, is completely honest with Bud, knows when the band needs time for their male bonding ceremony, and exits with humor.

Steady Eddie and Mr. Jimmy are important characters in that they come to Bud's defense, but we know little about them and the other band members except for the instruments they play. Yet in a rehearsal scene, the men come together with Miss Thomas in one harmonious whole and we know what their primary love must be.

Social Sensitivity

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Curtis makes only subtle references to race. Were it not for the dust cover, we would be well into the story before we recognized Bud's heritage. It is when Mrs. Amos reprimands him bitterly: "Boy—I am not the least bit surprised at your show of ingratitude. Lord knows I have been stung by my own people before—I do not have time to put up with the foolishness of those members of our race who do not want to be uplifted," that we are aware of color. Neither are we aware of Deza Malone's background until Bud notices a "dimple in her brown cheek" and even then it could be a suntan from living out of doors.

Lefty Lewis gives Bud advice about the possible dangers to a "young brown-skinned boy" alone on the Michigan roads at night. Herman E. Calloway keeps a white man, Dirty Deed, on with the band because he is useful in arranging engagements that the Devastators could not otherwise obtain. People of color cannot own property in Michigan so Dirty Deed holds the rights to Grand Calloway Station. We assume he must be trustworthy.

Bud, himself seems innocently unconcerned about race. He neither condemns nor glorifies anyone, taking a human in their own right, good or bad. His imagination soars as he sees the Hooverville residents, in the firelight, all looking much the same. "They were all the colors you could think of, black, white, and brown, but the fire made everyone look like they were different shades of orange. There were dark orange folks sitting next to medium orange folks sitting next to light orange folks."

Still, Bud is concerned that one destitute and obviously ill white family in Hooverville does not come to the fire or share the stew. They sit apart from the others. Deza Malone explains: "They been invited. . . when someone took them food and blankets, the man said 'Thank you very much, but we're white people. We ain't in need of a handout.'" This exchange provides ample food for thought on the subject of ill-afforded pride.

Curtis treats men, women, and children equally well in his characterizations. They take on the roles they are given and play them with wit and charm, spite, confidence, sweetness, joy, and murderous intent. All reflect different aspects of the human condition regardless of age, gender, race, or life circumstances. They are authentic and we recognize them as people we know.

Homelessness is always an issue in society. Bud is a homeless child in the 1930s even as some children are homeless today. He survives through wit, courage, determination, and the hand of providence. In doing so, he gives the reader a glimpse of foster homes and orphanages that, hopefully, are stereotypical of the Depression.

The Amos family is interested in him only for the money they are paid for his keep. The orphanage is overcrowded and impersonal to the extent that adults in charge do not know the children's names. This may be a somewhat true picture of orphanages, but there seems some bias here toward foster homes. Certainly, from Bud's standpoint, these places leave much to be desired. About all he knows of them is bumps and bruises and hornet stings, isolation, threats, and recrimination. Surely this image is not true of all people who take on the role of foster parents and could present a skewed interpretation for students.

Curtis also makes the case that the Depression was not all abject poverty, Hooverville's, gangsters, and dust storms. Some people held steady jobs. They lived well enough to afford cars, decent food, and good living accommodations. Miss Thomas' fingers sparkle with diamonds, Herman E. Calloway drives a touring car, the band can afford to eat in restaurants, and houses have indoor plumbing. Lefty Lewis and Mr. Sleet work for the railroad. For some families, life was safe, dependable, and good. Not many stories about this era in American history show the other side of the picture and Curtis gives the reader a more rounded perspective.

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Connections and Further Reading