Friday, March 28, 2014

Reading: Watson's Go to Birmingham, 1963

I am obsessed with moments.  

My fondest memories revolve around small moments with big meanings that I have carried with me.  I don't tend to remember or think about large events with the same adoration I have for small moments.  There was the moment on Webster Avenue when we ate dinner at the picnic table outside.  There was the moment my sister told me she had chicken pox and my heart sank to my feet like an anchor.  There was the moment that my kindergarten teacher's assistant and I bonded over a shared distaste for Oreos.  It made me feel connected to a leader in my classroom since my teacher was always yelling at us.  (Or so it seemed.)  There was the moment I brought my sweet dachshund home when I was ten years old.  I'll always remember how she sat beside me on a yellow towel in my mom's old Toyota pick-up.  There was the moment while I was running my first marathon in 2008 that I looked at the clock when approaching mile 25 - 3:19:00, it said - and I realized that I could finish the darn thing in my goal time!  Then, there was the moment just yesterday when my new baby bunny ate a dandelion out of my hand!  It is these moments, and many more, that I didn't plan to remember - that I didn't plan at all - that have helped shaped me into who I am, that have given me the things I am most appreciative for, and that have become my most special memories!  

The thing that my favorite authors do, I've noticed, is take these unplanned moments and weave them together in a seamless, engaging, thought-provoking story.  Christopher Paul Curtis did this when writing The Watson's Go to Birmingham - 1963 (published in 1995 by Yearling), which features a medley of young Kenny's memories growing up in Flint, Michigan.  Some are pleasant, some are hurtful, some are horrific. Whether it's a comical event, like the time his old brother, By, got his lips frozen to the side mirror on his father's "brown bomber" in an attempt to kiss his perfect reflection, or a heart-wrenching moment, like the time By unintentionally killed a bird by knocking it off a telephone wire, Kenny's memories flow together to create an unforgettable story that illustrates good and evil.  It is at times humorous (I read it while on the elliptical and about fell off for laughing too hard) and at other times heart-breaking. In all of the moments that Kenny has, he learns much about the human condition, about cruelty, love, bravery, and family.  It is this medley of moments that has joined this book with To Kill a Mockingbird, The Bell Jar, and Shiloh on my list of favorite, unforgettable, dare I say life-changing, novels. 

Kenny, known as "poindexter" for his brilliance, tells us about his family's trip in 1963 to Birmingham, Alabama.  After his brother's antics go too far and his parents worry about him choosing the wrong path, they decide to take the family down south to spend the summer with their grandmother, a strict but loving lady.  If By doesn't transform, they might even make him live there.  But while they are down there, an unexpected moment occurs that changes everyone's perspective, particularly Kenny's.  In fact, this event causes him to retreat into himself and transform from a fun-loving kid to a scared, shy child.  Based on a true event, I was completely shocked when I read this climatic point in the story and almost fell off the elliptical, this time in shock.  I was in disbelief that the author could do this to me when I had been having such a good time!  To me, this sudden turn of events paralleled the sudden loss of innocence in childhood.  In a moment, Kenny learned that cruelty does exist in the world and saw how damaging it can be.  

Still, moments of absolute cruelty, hatred, and prejudice do exist in our world, and they cannot be ignored and shoved under the rug, especially if we want to do something to change them!  I appreciated how Christopher Paul Curtis provided information at the end of his book regarding civil rights so that young readers can keep researching this topic.  Speaking of young readers, I feel like all children would enjoy this book in late elementary or early middle-school.  The characters are funny and relatable, and those "Weird Watson's" are quite likable. 

My absolute favorite part of the book is when the Watson's are driving through the Appalachian Mountains at night.  They stop to get out of their cars and stand under a "blanket of darkness."  I had such a vivid image of this scene in my mind and felt as if I was standing there, huddled with them.  However, the author allows us to see how scared the children are to be in the mountains at night.  People in Appalachia were known for being unkind towards African-Americans, and the children even feared sneaking into the woods to take a restroom break in case there were white men nearby.  I have made the trip through Appalachia many times myself and often at nights through winding mountain roads, but I do not have this fear that the Watson children had.  It breaks my heart that young Kenny, By, and Joey had to be afraid.  There they stood, overlooking one of the most beautiful regions in the country!  Yet the fear of cruelty still haunted them.  I feel that such a beautiful scene shrouded in fear reminds us that there is good and evil in the word.  Books like The Watson's Go to Birmingham - 1963 remind people to choose goodness.  

Currently, I am reading another book written by Christopher Paul Curtis, which is also strung together by small moments with big meaning. He has become one of my favorite authors, and I highly recommend Watson's. If you would like to find some other books that he has written, check out his website or your local library for more information. 


  1. I also enjoyed Christopher Paul Curtis's writing style. I look forward reading more of his work.

  2. You are right! This book is a string of moments tied together into a wonderful story! The only thing you are wrong about though is oreos! :-)