We’ve just finished “The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963” by multi-award winning author, Christopher Paul Curtis and we had a truly rip-roaring time with it. The story is about the “Weird Watsons”, a middle-class black family’s life in Flint, Michigan and their journey to the Deep South. Father Daniel loves “cutting up” and has an irrepressible sense of humour. Mother Wilona is loving but formidable enough to strike terror in her children’s hearts when laws are breached. Her Southern background is often fodder for her husband’s hillbilly jokes. Byron, the cocky (eldest) teenaged son, is on his way to being an “official delinquent”. Kenny, the narrator of the story, is an intelligent 10-year-old boy whose geekiness and lazy eye often cause him to be bullied. Joetta, the youngest, is a loyal girl who snitches on her siblings at times, but hates to see them punished.
Byron, by far the most colourful character, is the reason for the family’s journey to Birmingham, Alabama. Daddy Cool’s misdeeds include getting his lips frozen on the car’s mirror (it was cold and he was kissing his oh-so-handsome reflection), cutting school, using his parents’ credit at the store without permission, getting a conk (straightening his hair), playing with fire and assault. His parents make a desperate bid to save him from his self-destructive tendencies – they hope that a stint with Grandma Sands in Birmingham, away from the temptations and negative peers in the city will straighten him out.
The family makes preparations for the trip like refurbishing the car, getting a record player (the Ultra Glide) installed (because they want to avoid country/hillbilly music) and charting their proposed route, rest stops and expenses, all carefully and precisely noted by Mom in her notebook entitled The Watson’s Go To Birmingham – 1963. Dad however has other plans and saves money by driving practically non-stop.
In Birmingham, the family are caught up in the turbulent events of the emerging Civil Rights Movement. What begins as an interesting change of environment turns tragic when a Black church is bombed. This mirrors a true event in US history when a racially instigated bombing of a church led to 4 teenaged girls perishing – the book is in fact dedicated to these girls.
Issues like sibling rivalry, adolescent rebellion, friendship and bullying and racial prejudice are deftly handled – with a light touch that in no way dilutes them. I do have a few reservations – there are some cuss words, Byron’s unnamed trouble with a girl and references to ‘adult’ books. Since I was reading this with the kids, I censored these bits. I also skipped the part about Grandma Sands’ friendship with a Mr Robert. All in all, a good living book on history. An enjoyable read – wickedly funny but also deeply moving.