illustrated close-up of Kenny Watson with fire in the background behind him

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963

by Christopher Paul Curtis

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Chapter 5 Summary

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Byron has a dangerous habit of playing with matches, and Momma is acutely aware of the potential deadliness of matches. She often tells a story about when her house caught on fire when she was a little girl, and she and her brothers had to wear clothes that smelled like smoke for years as a result. Momma and Joey get “all sad and sobby” when she tells this story, but Byron and Kenny have heard it so many times that they think it is “kind of funny” and have even given it a name: “Momma’s Smokey the Bear story.” Momma had caught him lighting matches the last time about a week previously and had put him on punishment for a month, and she swears that the next time she catches him starting fires, she is going to burn him.

Byron does not take the warning seriously, and it is not even a week later when he goes into the bathroom and locks the door. Kenny senses that his brother is up to no good and peeks through the keyhole to witness Byron making a “bunch of little toilet paper parachutes,” lighting them on fire, and dropping them into the toilet, pretending that they are Nazi fliers getting shot down over the Flint River. Byron, playing the role of the parachutists, screams every time his little paper creations go down in flames, then he flushes them down the toilet. It is not long before Momma comes upstairs to see what all the commotion is about. She smells smoke and immediately hits the bathroom door with her shoulder, causing it to fly open and startle Byron, who is in the act of disposing of his seventh Nazi. Enraged, Momma snatches her son by the neck and drags him down the stairs, throwing him onto the sofa.

Momma tells Joetta to get her a book of matches from the kitchen, but Joey bursts into tears and refuses, pleading for mercy for her brother. Momma then tells Kenny to get the matches, but he is too frightened to do so. Finally she orders Byron to stay where he is and goes to the kitchen to get them herself. Joey begs Byron to run away, but he seems hypnotized and does not move until Momma returns with the matches, a jar of Vaseline, and a Band-Aid. Joey then places herself between Byron and Momma, trying to prevent her mother from carrying out her threat. Momma takes Joey aside and explains to her that she needs to make Byron understand that he must stop his dangerous activities before he hurts someone; she also reminds Joey that she “swore to God” that if Byron started lighting matches again she would burn him, so she is bound by her oath. Joey, who is “real religious,” weakly concedes that if Momma promised, then she has “gotta do it,” and she steps aside after extracting from her mother the assurance that she will not burn Byron too badly. Momma tells Joey that she is only “going to burn his fingers enough so he won’t be tempted by fire ever again.” Hearing this, Byron leaps up and tries to get away, but Momma tackles him. Sitting on his chest, she orders Byron to hold his finger out, and she lights a match. Just as she is about to burn him, Byron screams and Joetta, unable to contain herself, runs over and blows the match out. Despite Momma’s attempts to reason with Joey, the little girl blows the match out four more times, and finally Momma gives up. Byron has to deal with Dad when he gets home, but though that is “no picnic,” it is not nearly as bad as it could have been had Momma been able to handle things her way.

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