Bud (not Buddy!) is living in an orphanage after his mother died–his father was never in the picture so far as Bud remembers–as the book opens, he is being sent off to yet another foster home. Bud has a pretty fair idea of what is coming: the family will expect him to be grateful to them for taking him in, but they’re only in it for the money. Given that this is 1936, the depths of the Great Depression, and Bud is black (as are the foster families) perhaps this attitude isn’t surprising. It sure isn’t a welcoming one, though.
Armed only with his suitcase laden with treasures, he heads off for the new home. The Amoses prove about as miserable as he’d been expecting: the son bullies him–I’ll never look at a Ticonderoga pencil in the same way–the mother takes her son’s part even when it’s clear who’s bullying whom, and the father takes his wife’s part. This particular home stay ends with Bud being locked in the shed for the night, along with a woodpile, three mummified fish heads and a “vampire bat” that turns out to be a hornets’ nest. Pursued by furious hornets, Bud ends up going out the shed window and breaking into the house, where he reclaims his precious suitcase, exacts revenge on Toby and flees into the night. Going back to the orphanage is not an option; that facility’s been getting more and more children on the books in the past year or so–they won’t have room for him. The next few days prove a good news/bad news sequence of events.
After sleeping under the fir trees outside the library, he heads to the mission for breakfast; arriving fifteen minutes after the cut-off time, he is about to be chased off by the man assigned to patrol the line, when a family in line pretends Bud is their boy and he gets breakfast. Upon arriving at the library after opening hours, he discovers that his favorite librarian has gotten married and moved to Chicago, too far for him to walk from Flint. Upon returning to the pine tree, he meets his friend Bugs, also a fugitive from the orphanage, and head to the nearest “Hooverville“, where they are taken in. The freight train which the men are hoping to ride out West in search of work is guarded by railroad bulls and municipal cops, and the Hooverville is burned after the departure of the men and boys, leaving the remaining residents with literally nothing.
After this last fiasco, Bud decides to walk to Grand Rapids in search of the last likely residence of the man he believes to be his father; while his mother has never named Bud’s father, she collected fliers advertising performances by a jazz band headed by Herman Calloway, which ran under a number of different names depending on which flier you believe. In Owosso, a sundown town, he is picked up by Lefty Lewis, who is delivering blood to a hospital in Flint, and stays the night at Lewis’ daughter’s house. After breakfast with Lewis, his daughter and her two children, the two head back to Grand Rapids.
Bud presents himself at the club where the band is currently performing; Calloway proves to be both older and grumpier than Bud expected, but the other band members take him under their wing and he is accepted at the Grand Central Station (the band’s nickname for the house in which they all live) despite Calloway’s reservations. It is not until Bud spots Calloway picking up a stone near the band’s next gig outside Grand Rapids that he dares show the older man the rocks with similar inscriptions which his mother left him. After considerable questioning, the adults realize that Bud’s mother is Calloway’s estranged daughter; Calloway did not approve of the man his daughter married, and the two were too proud to reconcile. Now, too late for his daughter but just in time for his grandson, Calloway realized that the only way he can do right by his daughter is to take her son in.
As with The Watsons go to Birmingham-1963, Curtis incorporates (anti)racism deftly for a children’s book, though again filtered through the eyes of a child who does not fully understand the issues involved. There’s a brief mention of what is clearly a sundown town, and Curtis touches on racism in a conversation in the “Hooperville”, when Bud asks about a white family:
Right before we got into the cardboard jungle we passed the white people with the coughing baby at their own little fire. I said to Deza, “How come they’re off alone, they aren’t allowed to sit around the big fire ’cause that baby’s making too much noise?”
Deza said, “Uh-uh, they been invited, but my daddy said you got to feel sorry for them. All they’re eating is dandelion greens soup, they’re broke, their clothes are falling off of them, their baby’s sick but when someone took them some food and blankets, the man said, ‘Thank you very much, but we’re white people. We ain’t in need of a handout.'”
(Keep an eye on Deza; she gets her own book later, though her living situation isn’t quite as described here, for entirely justifiable reasons.)
Yes, it’s more than a little predictable. Yes, Bud is preciously precocious, more so than Kenny from The Watsons go to Birmingham-1963. Yes, it’s a feel-good novel….however. However. However…there’s something to be said for an author that can work racial issues into a book without leaving an overall bad taste in the readers’ mouths about the general goodness of humanity. Cover art aside, Curtis does not make a big deal about the fact that his characters are African-American. Instead, they are people. They are people with the same needs and loves and fears and desires as the melanin-challenged members of the U.S. population. Overall, I hope that kids read this for pleasure in addition to teachers using it as the introduction to their lesson plans about the Great Depression, jazz music and race relations.
(And he puts in a plug for libraries and librarians. How can I resist that?)