My wife asked me to do a non-spoilery review of Bud, Not Buddy, since she knows I’ve got a beef with it. The thing is, though, my beef isn’t with Bud, but with Christopher Paul Curtis’ writing in general. I’ll be referring to both Bud, Not Buddy and The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 in turn, and I’ll keep the spoilers to an absolute minimum. Both deal with important points in history (the Depression and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, respectively). Both are more-or-less biographical in nature (I’ve heard). Both books are told from the perspective of a young African-American boy (10 in both cases, I think). I have a problem with the young boy perspective, and with Curtis’ concept of structure (i.e. he has none).
Curtis can’t write children. There, I said it. I don’t care how many awards the guy wins, how many people clamor for his insight into children’s minds, he can’t do it. What Curtis does is write children from the perspective of an adult. Or the children are far enough down the autistic spectrum that they should consider investing in some fashionable helmets. I guess that could be a possibility.
Maybe I’m just jaded, but let’s take a look at this. Consider how Bud (a titular character) and Kenny (from the other one) stack up next to each other. Bud is a young black orphan struggling to find purpose and a home, keeping himself together by writing his own book of rules to live by in his head when he’s not being a jackass and failing to consider the simplest of consequences. Kenny, conversely, is a young black non-orphan with a home and no purpose, keeping himself together by writing his own book of rules to live by in his head when he’s not being an utter simpleton and failing to consider the simplest of consequences. Despite a few tweaks, these are basically the same character. They’re both lonely, poor, and dumb kids with no concept of the future or the world around them. Bud is frequently tricked, often put-upon, and rarely does anything that could be called planning. Kenny is frequently tricked, often bullied, and rarely does anything that could be called planning. This is LAZY writing. Either that, or Curtis thinks black kids are all lazy, shiftless fools. I’m partly kidding, but really, that’s a dangerous rabbit hole to go down. Curtis is probably lucky that more people aren’t looking at the actual trends of his characters. Back to children, though.
Bud and Kenny act like reasonable characters who are uneducated, borderline illiterate, unintelligent, uncreative, and dull. It’s rather a shame, then, that NEITHER ARE ALL OF THOSE THINGS. Bud is supposed to be creative and interesting, using streetsmarts to replace his lack of education. Then why is he easily tricked by so many of his acquaintances!? Why is he so incredibly dull as a person? Why does he act more like a tour guide for the Depression? Curtis solves this problem the only way he knows how – he gives Bud the Wacky Trait of writing a book in his head. The book contains rules for getting by called Bud Caldwell’s Rules for Getting By and Having a Funner Life or some other god awful nonsense. See, this is the problem. A kid might think of a book to write, but Curtis clearly thinks that’s not ‘kiddy’ enough and has to give it some stupid name that’s a dozen words long, is a pain to say, and that no reasonable person would use. And he uses it all the time. ‘Rule X from Bud Caldwell’s Stupid Book With an Asinine Title: Always Lie.’ A chapter later: ‘Rule Y from Bud Caldwell’s Stupid Book With an Asinine Title: Adults Are Dumb.’ Curtis was clearly being paid by the letter. Every chance Curtis has to make his child characters seem goofy and stupid, he takes it.
And Kenny. Kenny, Kenny, Kenny. Kenny is incredibly stupid. He’s the kind of stupid where I kind of hoped that something terrible would happen to him by the end of the book, just to teach him a lesson about being so painfully inane. This is bad enough, but he’s also hailed by the other characters as being an excellent student and very clever. I must assume, therefore, that Flint, Michigan has an average IQ of three, or that a disproportionately large number of people are lying to Kenny to make him feel better. Actually, now that I think about it… since he’s the narrator, he’d probably in a ‘special’ school, but he can’t figure out the difference because he’s so… ‘special.’ That’s a fairly subtle twist, there, Curtis; my hat’s off to- Wait, never mind. There weren’t any ‘special’ schools in Flint at that time, and other characters also attend.
People who’ve read the book are probably thinking about the terrible thing that does, in fact, happen to Kenny. This terrible thing is even brought on by Kenny’s inability to understand the simplest of things or to predict the most obvious of outcomes. You’d think that this would appease me, but only infuriates me more because HE LEARNS NOTHING. Also, it becomes a gateway to what I consider the most appalling undercutting of an important event I’ve seen in a book ever. I mean, it’s right up there with having a ‘that’s what she said!’ joke at the end of Schindler’s List. I’ll tell you later, ‘cause it’s spoilery.
All right, here’s where I recant a small degree of my criticism. It is possible, just possible, that I don’t like Curtis’ child characters because I was never a child. I know, it’s hard to believe, but I sprang fully formed from the rocks at the base of Yggdrasil. Okay, fine, I was born and had to develop and all, but I never had what might be called a childish outlook. I was always a bookish sort of person who tended to look at things more seriously than my contemporaries. Oh, sure, I was still given to the occasional bit of absurdity and I’ve been known to run around the house fighting with phantasmal enemies (still do), but was never the silly over-the-top kind of childishness that Curtis seems to assume is the norm. Maybe it is, and I’ve always been the boring kid. So there it is. I still find Curtis’ child characters inane, however.
This has gone on a bit, hasn’t it? If this all feels kind of flimsy, lacking in my preferred quotable evidence, it’s because it’s been a while since I’ve read the two books (though as a teacher I read them about a dozen times each), and because I don’t want to get into spoilish specifics. When you read them, though, you’ll see them. Also, in the interest of space, I’ll go into my problems with Curtis’ concept of structure NEXT TIME!