Bucking the Sarge
(2004), a young adult novel by Christopher Paul Curtis, explores themes of greed, race, and the American Dream. The book won eleven awards, including the ALA Best Books for Young Adults, ALA Notable Children’s Book, Golden Kite Award for Fiction, and the Booklist Children’s Editors’ Choice. Like many of Curtis’s books, Bucking the Sarge
is set in the author’s own hometown of Flint, Michigan. The story follows fifteen-year-old Luther T. Farrell as he plots to escape Flint and his slumlord mother, also known as the Sarge.
The novel begins with Luther and his best friend, Sparky, taking an account of their lives. Luther’s mother, the Sarge, has built a lucrative empire of insurance fraud, loan-sharking, and slum properties and group homes, like the Happy Neighbor Group Home for Men that Luther has overseen for two years. He works hard, long hours outside of school, saving his money so he can go to college to study philosophy. By contrast, Sparky is poor—his dad was a firefighter who died, and he doesn’t have a job, a good school record, or a plan in life. His nickname is Sparky because he often goes to his dad’s old station, and the firefighters there give him small jobs and make him feel welcome.
The science fair is about a month away, and Luther starts plotting how to win it. He has won it for two years running and is determined to come up with a better project to ensure winning a third time. The problem is that Shayla, the beautiful girl he admires from afar, is determined to win this year since she took second place the year before. In the meantime, Luther goes about life like normal—helping with his mother’s properties and taking care of men at the Happy Neighbor Group Home.
One of his tasks is cleaning up houses and apartments after the Sarge evicts tenants. During one of these excursions, he meets a terrifyingly huge rat with a tail as thick as a finger and beady, marble-sized black eyes. In another, he witnesses a classmate and his family evicted from one of Sarge’s houses. The boy, Bo Travis, is the quiet classmate with the fast-food job who took third place in the previous year’s science fair. Luther thinks that someone who owes Sarge money and works at the courthouse backdated the paperwork to make it look as if they had complied with the law to give tenants a sixty-day eviction notice, when, in fact, they had only been given two days. Inside the house, Luther realizes that the family had been living without electricity, heating, and water all winter and that their kitchen was bare except for a box of cornflakes. In what Sarge calls, “an irrational, inappropriate episode of misplaced sensitivity,” he takes Bo’s little sister’s report cards and artwork. He tracks Bo down at work when Bo stops going to school and gives him her things.
Sarge’s influence is everywhere in Flint. People owe her favors all over town, including the office of the Secretary of State, which is how Luther gets a fake license at thirteen that allows him to drive the bus for the group home. The license says Luther is eighteen, and Sarge has a birth certificate and other documents forged to match. Sarge also agrees to pay him for his work and to deposit the funds in his education account so he won’t have to take student loans when he goes to college. In chapter 8, Sarge delivers a speech about her motivations for doing what she does. She talks about the racial inequalities in America, and the cruelty of telling a black child that they will have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good; in Sarge’s eyes, this maxim does nothing but set a child up to fail. She talks about her early life, teaching at a private school in New York, where the children came from wealthy families—Fortune 500 execs, politicians, and actors. In art class one day, a young Sarge realizes that some of these children’s families own the art that they are studying in class, Picassos and Rembrandts. She goes home to her tiny apartment with her cheap art prints on the walls, wondering when she would be able to make enough money to be on par with these families who could afford to send their children to an exclusive boarding school where the tuition alone costs $25,000 a year. She realizes that there is nothing inherently talented about these children. They come from money because they have been trained all their lives to expect it. Going the normal corporate way would never get Sarge wealth, so she decides to work hard, save her money, and start her own businesses. If rich white people can milk the system for all they can get, she makes up her mind to do the same—and it works.
The day of the science fair arrives and Luther ties for first place with Shayla. His project is intricately researched on the topic of lead paint poisoning. The fair is so impressive that they invite local television crews to film the results. Halfway through, Luther realizes what he has done: his mother used lead paint in all her properties. She bought it cheap when the paint was outlawed, but instead of destroying it, she used it. Her reputation will be ruined, and even if she avoids jail, she will still be fined. Sarge’s Evil Empire will be destroyed. Enraged, she tells him he has the four days she is on a business trip to pack his things and get out.
Luther decides to get revenge before he leaves. He goes to the bank and finds his education fund, but instead of the $92,000, there is only $900 in it. He takes money from the Sarge’s bank security box, copies all her records for security purposes, sells the bus and signs Sarge’s boyfriend’s car into his own name, bringing his total assets up to the amount that his education fund should have been. Luther and Chester X (Luther’s ancient roommate who conned his way into the group home with forged financial documents and pretended to be a senile old man) take the money and the car, and head south to Florida to start over, with Sparky planning to join them in a few months.
The very end of the book has a set of eight discussion questions and an interview with the author.