The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 Summary

Christopher Paul Curtis

The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963

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The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 Summary

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The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis is the story about a family from Flint, Michigan told through son Kenny’s eyes. Kenny is by turns fearful of and enthralled by his older brother Byron, or By, who sometimes bullies Kenny and sometimes treats him kindly, but always has adventures that draw Kenny’s admiration. Their sister, Joetta, likes to follow the rules set forth by their parents, grandmother, and the rest of the world.

As the book opens, the family trying to stay warm in their apartment. They’re freezing because the heat doesn’t work. Kenny’s father decides they should go to their Aunt Cydney’s house to warm up, so he sends By and Kenny out to scrape the ice off the car windows. By’s lips get frozen to the car mirror, so Kenny runs inside to get help. Their mother pulls By’s face free and he runs inside in pain. On the drive to their aunt’s house, Kenny teases By, telling their sister that he’s going to write a comic book about the Lipless Wonder, a hero based on By.

Kenny describes how he is often teased at school because he has a lazy eye. Despite this, there are perks to having By for a brother—sometimes the other bullies are somewhat nice to him, and By is proud of Kenny for being a good reader. Kenny describes how two new kids have arrived from the Deep South, and he hopes they will be teased instead of him. He ends up becoming friends with Rufus, the older of the two boys, but when Kenny laughs at Rufus’s brother Cody, Rufus doesn’t want to play with him anymore. Kenny’s mom gets Rufus to stop by, and Kenny apologizes; the two become friends once more.

Kenny shares his leather gloves with Rufus, each taking one glove, but when Kenny remembers that his mother buys two pairs for him and his siblings every year, he tells her he lost his pair so that he can give them to Rufus. Larry steals Kenny’s gloves, and Kenny gets By to get them back. By goes overboard and bullies Larry more than Kenny can stand. Byron plays with fire, so their mother tries to burn him with a match to teach him a lesson. Joetta and Kenny stop her, and their father gives By a beating when he gets home.

Kenny and By go to the store to pick up some things for their mother, who tells them they can sign for the items. Later, By returns to the store and gets cookies, signing for them without permission. He eats a bag and a half of cookies, and gives some to Kenny, then he throws cookies at a dove. He hits it and the bird falls; he is upset by this and buries the bird. Byron straightens his hair, which upsets his parents. His father shaves his head. Kenny overhears his parents talking to his grandmother who lives in Alabama about plans.

Kenny’s dad gets the family car fixed up, and buys a drive-around record player that will play music without skipping. Kenny’s mom reveals they fixed up the car because they are all taking By to live with their strict grandmother, at least for the summer. Kenny tells his father that he’s nervous he won’t know enough by the time he’s an adult, but his father assures him that he’ll learn. Kenny overhears By saying he won’t talk the entire trip, but then he does, and Kenny feels he’s won a small victory in calling his brother out on that promise.

On their way through Ohio, they stop at outhouses, which disgusts the children—but their dad says By ought to get used to it because their grandmother does not have indoor toilets. They drive the whole night through, and that night is, according to Kenny, the best part of the trip. The family reaches Birmingham, Alabama, where Byron instantly kowtows to their grandmother, which confuses Kenny. Their grandmother also mentions a mysterious Mr. Robert.

Kenny finds out that Mr. Robert is living with his grandmother, and his own mother doesn’t approve. He also mentions that Byron seems to be adjusting well to being with their grandmother in the South. Kenny and By are at a nearby lake. Kenny wants to see a whirlpool; he almost drowns, but By saves him.

Joetta goes to Sunday School at a nearby church. The church is bombed, and Kenny runs there, fearing Joetta has been killed. She follows him home and, at first, he thinks she is just a spirit, but then he realizes that she is alive. The family returns home to Flint and deals with the aftermath and subsequent trauma of the bombing.

In the epilogue, the author discusses some of the events of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, and how ordinary people can be heroes.