Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Bucking the Sarge by Christopher Paul Curtis

Luther T. Farrell is a 15-year-old boy living in Flint, Michigan, employed by his mother to run one of her group homes and clean out her run-down rental houses after her tenants are evicted. He is learning all the tricks of her trade, but he doesn’t like it. From her point of view, she is taking care of him and herself, and getting some of what’s due. The more you know of her the more horrified you become. I tried to have compassion on her and think that she was doing all of her evil for his sake, but by the end of the book I had to give that up and just know that she is a nightmare I hope never to meet.

Luther wants to work on his science fair project so he can win a third gold medal. Some how or other he has protected his heart and his integrity, even as he learns wisdom from the suffering his mother, the Sarge, inflicts. Luther is the kind of high school English student any teacher would prize above all and never forget. He is the young man you want your daughter to fall in love with and your son to hang with. When he finally pulls it all together and makes his move it is the kind of glorious relief you get from seeing butterflies released from the cage they were raised in for some elementary school science lesson.

The book is so well written it is a joy to read, even as it frightens and saddens me. The humor is sharp and the language is beautiful. There is a lot of street jargon that some of us have to work at to understand, but it is very poetic and visual and adds a tangy flavor. (Don’t think learning the terminology is going to make you hip though, because by the time you get it, it will all be so old school). The pace is so carefully structured and tenderly balanced I found myself chuckling and wiping tears in equal measure. Luther pokes fun at himself and brags about his prowess in typical teenage fashion. He is clever and quick, but also blind to his mother’s true colors at the beginning of the story. As he gains awareness of his strength and power he also comes face to face with the ugliness of the Sarge’s ways. His dealing with that pain and disappointment are the heart of the story, and it is a satisfying and enlightening portrayal.

Here is an example of the biting humor of the book - this is on the back cover.

Christopher Paul Curtis also wrote Bud, Not Buddy and The Watsons Go to Birmingham; two other beautiful and highly recommended books. They are enjoyed by fourth and fifth graders but I would recommend Bucking the Sarge to 6th – 8th grades.

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