Bucking the Sarge by Christopher Paul Curtis

Luther T. Farrell, fifteen years old and in ninth grade, wants to be a Famous American Philosopher by the time he’s twenty-one. He studies hard, and is aiming to win the middle school1 science fair for the third year in a row.

The catch? His mother, whom he calls “the Sarge” for very good reason. The Sarge is, to put it bluntly, a slum landlord, a loan shark, and the operator of several group homes of the sort that get written up for criminal violations…or they would if she didn’t get advance warning from her friends who owe her significant debts about when the state inspectors are coming around. Luther’s been working for his mother since he was old enough to manage a mop. He began simply enough, helping her clean the rentals she owns after the tenants leave2. When he was thirteen, his mother set him up as the live-in staff member for one of her group homes, complete with a driver’s license created by the manager of a DMV branch who owed her a lot of money, so that he could drive the residents to their appointments. For the past two and a half years, he’s been working full-time and then some for his mother, between the group home and helping Darnell, the Sarge’s chief go-to employee, “renovate” his mother’s properties between tenants; he believes that his mother’s been setting his pay aside for him in a savings account so that he can attend college when the time comes.

No. She hasn’t…but that’s the main plot point of the book.

His best friend, Sparky, spends most of the book trying to come up with get-rich quick schemes, usually involving faking a lawsuit up. His chief rival for the science fair prizes, Shayla Patrick, disses him at every turn; she is not only brighter than he, and a better scientist, but is the girl on whom he’s had a crush since the first day of kindergarten3. Good role models, at least from the non-Flint perspective4, are a bit thin on the ground for Luther when the book begins; he is clearly expecting to follow into his mother’s business when he gets older, though at fifteen he is beginning to realize just what his mother is, and that he does not have to be she, though he is her son.

It is not until Luther is deep in the middle of the hoopla surrounding his tie for first prize with Shayla for the science fair that he realizes just what he’s uncovered: his own mother has been using lead-based paints between tenants in her properties…paint that the state presumed safely disposed of, but which The Sarge regarded as a free source of supplies for her own personal gain. And unfortunately, it’s at the medal ceremony that The Sarge herself also realized what her son’s uncovered. She gives him four days to clear out, while she is in Washington D.C. on business, but in the course of making deposits at the bank in her absence, Luther finds out the extent of her business dealings. He does his best to set things right before taking off for Florida with the elderly roommate she’s lumbered him with at the beginning of the book.

As with several of Curtis’s previous books, this one’s set in Flint, Michigan; Bucking the Sarge is, however, more or less contemporaneous with the time of its writing. For those who don’t particularly care for Curtis’s books (and I know you’re out there), don’t worry. I think I’ve read all of his books that are currently available to me in libraries, and so won’t be blogging about (many) more of them. For those who have read and enjoyed his children’s books, keep in mind that this is different from the others, to say the least. It’s written for an older audience, and is often categorized as a YA/teen book for reasons starting with “the protagonist’s a teenager himself”. It’s darker than many of his other books, not least because it is set now–no glossing over the darker aspects of the book by saying “Well, it’s set in the past; things are better now!” Curtis does keep a lighthearted tone through this book as well, but as with The Watsons go to Birmingham-1963, that brightness just highlighted the social aspects for me.

Overall, I’d recommend it wholeheartedly, though, for African-American kids who can’t see the point of facing a society dominated by people unlike them5, but more importantly for that larger society! I appreciate authors who are willing to stand up and say “Hey guys, look! There’s an elephant in the room!” and I appreciate authors who can create kids who are clearly bright but who are also kids; none of the pollyannaish

1school districts’ divisions between elementary, middle, and high schools vary a bit. Don’t let that throw you.
2get evicted
3Shayla’s mother tells Luther, as he stops by to say goodbye on his way out of town at the end, that Shayla’s had a major crush on him since that very same first day of kindergarten
4yes, that’s a euphemism in the extreme, but I’ll let readers figure that out for themselves, if they’re not familiar with southeast Michigan.
5sorry, yes: that’s another euphemism

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