The Watsons Go to Birmingham: Summary, Characters & Theme

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  • 0:00 Plot Summary
  • 3:57 Characters
  • 6:40 Themes
  • 7:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

Christopher Paul Curtis' novel ''The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963'' tells the story of one family's trip to the South, where its youngest member is involved in one of the darkest incidents in American history. This lesson summarizes this work of historical fiction and details its characters and theme.

Plot Summary

The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 is the story of the Watson family of Flint, Michigan. The eldest son, Byron, the self-proclaimed 'King of Clark', is a sixth-grader at Clark Elementary School for the second time. He's a stubborn bully who's bigger and meaner than most of the kids at school. Kenny, the narrator, is in fourth grade, and little sister Joetta (called Joey) is a kindergartner. Kenny often gets picked on,by his older brother and his friend Buphead and by the fourth-grade bully, Larry Dunn.

Kenny's pretty miserable until Rufus Fry moves to Flint and winds up on Kenny's bus. Rufus' family is poor and from the South, so Kenny hopes the bullies will target Rufus instead. But Kenny gets to know Rufus when the two are paired on a project in school, and they become best friends.

Kenny is overshadowed by big brother Byron, whose constant trouble keeps the family on its collective toes. Byron's list of trouble includes getting his lips stuck to the mirror of the family's car (he was kissing the glass in sub-freezing weather), getting into numerous fights at school, doing so poorly he's at risk of repeating sixth grade again, setting fires, stealing, and having a meltdown after accidentally killing a bird with a cookie he stole.

But when Byron gets his hair straightened, Momma and Daddy put their feet down. They announce that they are heading south to Birmingham, Alabama, where Momma grew up, to visit Grandma Sands. They tell Byron he's going to stay there until he learns to behave. Grandma Sands is very strict, and Momma and Daddy think she'll be able to straighten Byron out.

At first, things go very well in Alabama. Byron actually behaves himself. Kenny, however, suffers in the extreme heat and humidity. The kids want to go swimming, but Grandma Sands tells them not to go to Collier's Landing because there's a whirlpool where a boy recently drowned. Inspired, Byron tells Kenny and Joey a story about Winnie-the-Pooh's evil twin, the Wool Pooh (a corruption of the word 'whirlpool'), who pulls kids under the water and drowns them.

Joey's properly terrified, but Kenny decides to disregard his grandmother's warning and go swimming anyhow. He gets caught in the whirlpool and nearly drowns, but Byron manages to pull him out in time. To Kenny's confusion and surprise, Byron sobs after saving him.

While Kenny is still recovering from his near drowning, Joey decides to go to Sunday School with some friends of her grandmother's at 16th Street Baptist, a real church in Birmingham. Before she leaves, Kenny compliments her on her shiny shoes. But while Joey is there, a bomb explodes in the basement of the church. The family rushes to the church, but they can't find Joey. Kenny finds a ripped shoe that looks just like the one Joey was wearing. He picks it up and runs home, terrified that the Wool Pooh has gotten his little sister.

While Kenny is cowering in his grandma's house and the rest of the family is frantically searching the rubble of the church for Joey, Joey wanders home. She tells Kenny she thought she saw him in the street outside the church and followed him. She hadn't even been at the church when it exploded. Soon, the rest of the family returns home and is overjoyed to see Joey. That night, the Watsons pack up and return to Flint, deciding the racially tense South is no place for them or Byron.

While everyone is shaken by the bombing, Kenny seems to take it the hardest. He hides and refuses to talk to anyone. Byron, who has matured and mellowed, talks to Kenny. Kenny bursts into tears and explains to Byron that he is ashamed he didn't even try to save his sister. Byron tells Kenny that the bombing is not his fault and there was nothing he could have done. Kenny decides to come out from hiding and be part of his family again.

Characters

Kenny Watson is the middle child and the narrator of the story. He's a typical fourth-grader; he likes playing with dinosaurs and outside with his friends. Kenny gets picked on a lot by the other kids. He's also very smart, and when he is forced to read out loud to the sixth-grade class, his torment continues. Kenny is very different from his older brother and younger sister and sometimes doesn't feel like he fits in with his family very well. Kenny has an overactive imagination and things like the Wool Pooh terrify him.

Byron Watson is the oldest Watson child and sort of a bad seed. He is constantly in trouble at home, at school, and with the law. He sometimes shows glimpses of his humanity - like when he cries over a bird he's killed and when he saves Kenny from the water - but Byron's misbehavior is a big problem for the Watson family. Byron does improve drastically after the shock of almost losing his brother and his sister in the same week.

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