Bud, Not Buddy Themes

The main themes in Bud, Not Buddy are independence versus community, systemic racism, family and belonging, and economic hardship.

  • Independence versus community: At the start of the novel, Bud is independent and distrustful of adults, but he learns to trust others and accept the value of community.
  • Systemic racism: Bud's journey is set during a time of widespread racism and prejudice against Black Americans. 
  • Family and belonging: As an orphan, Bud searches for a sense of belonging and finds himself accepted by ever more welcoming and familial groups.
  • Economic hardship: During his journey, Bud encounters the immense poverty brought on by the Great Depression.

Themes

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Last Updated on July 14, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1031

Independence Versus Community

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For much of Bud, Not Buddy, Bud is instinctively distrustful of the adults around him. As a child who has been mistreated by so many of them, Bud’s hesitance is framed in the narrative as self-defense rather than prejudice. Indeed, his first notable interaction with new adults—the Amos family—ends in his being blamed for a fight and locked in a dark backyard shed, where he is attacked by wasps.

In the absence of an overarching authority in his life, Bud becomes self-reliant and constructs a belief system of his own: “Bud Caldwell's Rules and Things to Have a Funner Life and Make a Better Liar of Yourself.” These rules are, for the most part, about how to negotiate his safety among adults. For example, in one rule he recommends misdirecting adults toward something trivial that they can take away from him to maintain their power. This, he explains, keeps them from taking away what he truly does value.

These guidelines give him a touchstone as he contemplates his own maturity and sense of awareness, which he does often. Through his deliberate opposition to the adults around him, Bud is constantly defining and evaluating his own identity as separate from them. "Most folks think you start to be a real adult when you're fifteen or sixteen years old," he muses in chapter 1, "but that's not true, it really starts when you're around six."

As his journey continues and he meets adults who treat him better—Lefty Lewis and his family, Miss Thomas and the other members of the band—he begins to relax and to trust adults more. As he makes room for that trust within himself, he matures enough to see the members of the band as not just adults but also friends. The novel ultimately suggests that even the most independent individuals can, in the right conditions, find a sense of belonging and community.

Systemic Racism

While Bud is, for the most part, spared overt person-to-person racism throughout his journey, Christopher Paul Curtis does not shy away from portraying the limitations and dangers imposed by systemic racism on the Black community during the Great Depression.

There are two instances where this disparity is made especially clear. When Lefty Lewis first meets Bud in chapter 10, Lefty is most concerned with Bud’s safety in the especially racist town they’re in. As a young Black boy, Bud isn’t safe in public in this area. “In fact,” Lefty tells Bud, “what is definite is that neither one of us should be out here this time of night.”

Later, when Bud meets Herman E. Calloway and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression, he is introduced to the structural and regulatory impacts of systemic racism. “Mr. C. has always got a white fella in the band, for practical reasons,” Steady Eddie tells him in chapter 18. Despite his financial success and wide renown as a musician, it is illegal for Herman E. Calloway to own land in certain areas. Dirty Deed, the piano player, is named that for a reason—he holds the nominal title to some of the band’s property, because as a White man he has the sole legal privilege to do so. This, Steady Eddie tells Bud, also allows them to send him out alone to make business arrangements with people who wouldn’t hire the band if they knew the musicians were Black.

Family and Belonging

As Bud searches for his purported father, he experiences different—and ever kinder—versions of family that help him develop his sense of belonging. Under the strict rules of the orphanage, he develops a defensive sense of self, taking on the persona of the savvy, wise kid who can outwit anybody if he sticks to his own set of rules for survival. Once out of the orphanage, he enouncters a number of families: the Amos family, where he feels like an at-risk outsider; his “pretend family,” who take him in at the Mission so he doesn’t miss the meal he arrived late for; the people at Hooverville, who are glad to feed and house him in exchange for some dishwashing; and the warm, generous Lewis/Sleet family, who make him feel like an old friend. By the time he joins the band and develops a rapport with Miss Thomas, Bud feels that he has found a family he truly belongs to.

Despite his cynicism about adults and the world at large, Bud is also deeply sentimental about the objects he carries in his suitcase that belonged to his mother, Angela. This thread of sentimentality, the audience eventually discovers, is woven through the different generations of his lineage: Bud treasures the objects left behind by his mother, just as she treasured the objects that reminded her of her father. Her father, Herman E. Caldwell, too, shows this same sentimental side. Even years after Angela becomes estranged, Herman is still collecting and labeling rocks for her collection, and her childhood bedroom remains preserved as it was years ago.

Economic Hardship

Bud’s journey is set against the backdrop of the Great Depression. There are signifiers of the economic hardships encountered during that time throughout the book, but this context is especially highlighted when Bud decides to try hopping a train and finds himself in the company of other such wanderers, all of whom are heading west for a chance at a better life.

When he comes upon a ramshackle settlement—a “cardboard jungle,” as his friend describes it—near where the train is stationed, the people around the campfire explain that Bud has found Flint’s “Hooverville.” Bud is confused, and the man explains how Hooverville came to be. Like other similar settlements all around the country, it is named after president Herbert Hoover, the man whose economic policies are blamed for the dire conditions that have necessitated such encampments. When Bud expresses uncertainty as to whether he is in the “right” Hooverville, the man reassures him that “all these people... are just like you, they're tired, hungry, and a little bit nervous about tomorrow. This here is the right place for y'all to be 'cause we're all in the same boat.”

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