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The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963    by Christopher Paul Curtis order for
Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963
by Christopher Paul Curtis
Order:  USA  Can
Delacorte, 2000 (1995)
Hardcover, Softcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Christopher Paul Curtis chronicles the life and times of the Watson family, seen through the eyes of ten-year old Kenny Watson. Other members of the family are teen-brother Byron, younger-sis Joetta, Momma Wilona, and Dad Daniel. Set in the 1960s in 'icebox, live-in-a-igloo', Flint, Michigan, The Watsons Go To Birmingham is the title of Momma's notebook, prepared for a family trip to Alabama.

Kenny starts with a cold blizzard in Michigan. The house heater's kaput, the landlord is unavailable, and the Watsons huddle under blankets, wearing shirts, sweaters, and coats over more of the same. Fortunately, Aunt Cydney has a new furnace, and the freezing five are welcomed there. But first Byron and Kenny have to scrape off the ice from the windows of the family Brown Bomber (named so for its color), a 1948 Plymouth. Kenny diligently scrapes the windows on one side, determined that he is not going to be tricked by Byron into scraping the other side too. But mishaps happen - as Byron admires himself in the car's side mirror, and kisses his reflection, his lips freeze to the glass. Dad's comments fit the bill: 'Well, lover boy, I guess no one can call you Hot Lips'.

The purpose of the trip is to visit Grandma Sands and leave Byron there for the summer so that he can straighten up and fly right under grandma's supervision. Byron has been getting into trouble too often, influenced by schoolmate Buphead. Kenny at times finds it 'real hard to understand what was going on with Byron', who also has an effective Death Stare. Yet, even with the squabbling there are times when bro By is a guardian to his brother and also to sis Joey. Arriving in Alabama, Kenny relates how he pictured Byron and Grandma together, 'the two meanest and evil people' - like 'Godzilla meets King Kong'. Seeing Grandma Sands in the flesh is not at all what Kenny expected - he meets 'a teeny-weeny, old ... woman that looked just like Momma ... someone shrank down about five sizes and sucked all the juice out of her.'

Christopher Paul Curtis's debut novel about the Watsons is poignant with memories of the days of Buster Brown shoes, and dad giving son a little pat of Old Spice cologne. But Curtis also strikes home with the realities of times of destructive prejudice, bombings, segregation, the deaths of young and old - in a reminder of the treatment of blacks, and the enactment of civil rights acts. The author's Epilogue alone is a potent message on conditions back then. The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 is a meaningful, hit-you-in-the-heart-and-mind read.

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