Review of the Day: Bucking the Sarge
Once in a while I cave in and read a YA book. Not much caving is required when that book is by Christopher Paul Curtis, though.
You grow up with a mom who’s a slum lord and you’re gonna be a little more self-aware than the other kids in school. And what a slum lord she is! Luther T. Farrell lives in the heart of Flint, Michigan with a mother that he officially refers to as the Sarge. Now his friend, Sparky, thinks Luther has it made. After all, the Sarge has set him up with a fake driver’s license (he’s only fourteen), lots of money for his education fund, fifty dollars in his wallet at all times, and his mom owns half the ghetto which Luther is someday bound to inherit. On the other hand, Luther is also in charge of a group of five or six men from a group home. He has to keep them entertained, clean, and fed almost 24-7, with breaks only for sleeping and school. In spite of all of this, our hero’s a pretty smart cookie. He’s intent on winning the middle school science fair for an unprecedented three years in a row. His main competition is a gorgeous daughter of an undertaker on whom he has crushed since they were in Kindergarten. Add to all of that the fact that he has a condom as old as Methuselah in his wallet named Chauncey, life with the Sarge is getting more and more difficult, and his new ancient roommate is saying they should split town… well it seems as if Luther's got more choices in front of him than he knows what to do with.
If there are two patron saints of poor misbegotten Flint, Michigan, they’ve gotta be Michael Moore and Christopher Paul Curtis. Every book that Mr. Curtis has come out with, whether it’s the Newbery winning “Bud Not Buddy”, the hilarious Newbery Honor “The Watsons Go to Burningham”, or the younger but still streetsmart “Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money”, you can bet your bottom dollar that the bulk of the action is Flint-based. You can imagine my heartbreak then when I discovered that Mr. Curtis lives, not in the heart of Michigan’s slummiest town like Michael Moore, but in Windsor, Ontario instead. That’s akin to when Garrison Keillor moved from Minnesota to New York but kept on telling his Lake Woebegone tales. I would like to give Mr. Curtis credit, though. He is the number one source of information in fictional books for kids and teens on the Pullman Porter strike. It was mentioned once in “Bud Not Buddy” and I’ll be damned but it’s mentioned again here. So he may not live in the town that serves as his muse, but he knows where his loyalties lie.
Every time I pick up a Christopher Paul Curtis book I have the vaguest inkling that I’m going to enjoy what I read. I somehow manage to forget that this is probably one of two authors for kids and teens that actually has the power to make me laugh out loud. The guy has chapter headings like, “The Quest For the Ashy Brown Kneecap”. He refers to rather male activities with phrases like, “it’s perfectly normal for a young man to rough up the suspect every once and a while”. His best friend, Sparky, is dedicated to getting out of Flint. His plan? He’s going to find himself a beautiful lawsuit and sue his way to fame and fortune. Trouble is, he keeps trying to rope Luther into helping him out. That means that Luther has to hit Sparky over the head with a roof tile from Taco Bell, hold his friend’s hand when a rabid neon-green pus leaking rat runs to bite him, and other unsavory activities. Some of Curtis’s slang is so contemporary and his references so up-to-date that I do worry that it’s going to age the book before its time. I loved “Bucking the Sarge” so much that the idea that in 20 years kids will find some of its references quaint disturbs me. But in the end, it probably won’t matter.
The plot is tightly woven. By the time you reach the end you are on the edge of your seat cheering Luther on. If you’re a fan of intelligent well-planned revenge schemes against intolerable oppressors, this is the book for you. The characters too are beautifully penned. The Sarge is certainly as cold as they get, but she’s also got some kind of maternal feeling tucked away somewhere deep. Very deep. As for our hero, Luther considers himself a bonified philosopher and fully intends on becoming rich as one someday. This seems like a doable dream in his books. And as philosophical statements go, his are rather on the ball. When the Sarge has him on cleanup crew after she’s forcibly evicted people from their homes, Luther has this to say: “There’s no way to know what you’ll find but it’s never going to be something that’s gonna pop into your mind later and leave you smiling”. He’s likable, incredibly funny, and just the kind of guy you want to see drive off into the sunset.
It’s been a while since I read any book that was great a pleasure to return to as, “Bucking the Sarge”. It’s a great mix of dark subject matter handled with a deft hand. Just something you should read if you want a book that’s intelligent and talented in all the right ways. A great find.