Saturday, June 07, 2008

Book Three: Bucking the Sarge by Christopher Paul Curtis

reading: 4:40-6:45 (2 hours, 5 minutes), 259 pages
writing: 7:10-7:40, 8:05-8:30 (55 minutes)

Bucking the Sarge by Christopher Paul Curtis. Wendy Lamb, 2004 (0-385-32307-7) $15.95

This was a rough book to read and may be rougher to evaluate. I seem to be the only person who's read it and ended up feeling sad and confused.

Fifteen year old Luther's life seem great from the outside looking in: he has credit cards, wheels, "a for-real, honest-to-God, straight from the Secretary of State phony driver's license" and a pumped-up college fund. Perhaps the only thing average about him is the oldest condom on earth he keeps in his wallet. But everything comes with a price and Luther's is working eighty hour weeks for a "coldhearted, moneygrubbing, beastly sadist" aka The Sarge, aka his mother. He's not exaggerating--one of his mother's favorite sayings is "It is far better to be feared than loved." Or as one of the residents of the Sarge's Happy Neighbor Group Home puts it, "you're her handyman and housekeeper and chauffeur and nurse and whipping boy all rolled into one tall, skinny, unhappy, unpaid lump."

Luther narrates the episodic, grimly comic story of how his attempt to win the science fair three years running inadvertently puts him where he is most afraid to be--on the Sarge's bad side--and the consequences of that.

Naive and gullible, Luther reminded me of an earlier Curtis character, the protagonist of The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963. I had trouble with this characterization though. It's not implausible for a smart kid to simultaneously be very naive, but Luther is downright stupid at times, and at others he shows flashes of insight that don't mesh; one second he is thrilled because the people in the house he's cleaning out owned almost nothing, making his job easier, the next he is thinking about the little girl who was evicted: "What's hard is knowing that KeeKee may be six or seven now but that in three or four years she'll be thirty."

There are other oddities in the characterization too: Luther's acceptance of, even participation in, casual cruelties, and the way he seemingly accepts his mother's explanations for her crimes--she's a slumlord and a loan shark amongst other things--even while utterly despising her. It's possible that Curtis deliberately intended Luther as a somewhat schizophrenic portrayal because the life he is leaving would make anyone crazy, but it wasn't clear to me that was what he was trying to do. I was left somewhat uneasy about rooting for Luther, particularly at the end; possibly I didn't completely get it, but it seems to me Luther chooses to just protect himself and follow his own ends over potentially truly "bucking the sarge" and I found that very disappointing.

I mostly did enjoy the book until the end though. It's funny in its oddball way--much of the humor comes from Luther's friend's Sparky's attempts to hurt himself and win a lawsuit as a way of getting the hell out of Flint, Michigan--and Luther has a winning way with a phrase. And it is certainly a very different kind of story; you don't get too many children's books about the exploitation of the urban poor by their own community. (12 & up)

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