CM . . . .
Volume VI Number 11 . . . . February 4, 2000
Here we go again. We were all standing in line waiting for breakfast when one of the caseworkers came in and tap-tap-tapped down the line. Uh-oh, this meant bad news, either they'd found a foster home for somebody or somebody was about to get paddled. All the kids watched the woman as she moved along the line, her high-heeled shoes sounding like little fire-crackers going off on the wooden floor.It's Flint, Michigan; it's 1936; it's not a good time to be black,10-years-old, and an orphan. The previous four years since Bud's mother died haven't been great either. During those four years, however, the idea has grown in Bud's mind that all the flyers advertising Herman E.Caldwell and his variously named bands which, along with a few rocks with dates and places written on them and a picture of his mother as a six-year-old, were most of what he inherited from his mother, must mean that this Herman E. is his father. He, therefore, takes off from an abusive foster home and makes his way to Grand Rapids where he finds the band, and Herman E., who turns out to be not his father, but his grandfather. Bud is inadvertently the bearer of the bad news that Herman E.'s daughter, lost to him since she ran away from home when she was nineteen, is now dead and has been for four years - not a way to be a really welcome messenger! It is, however, fairly obvious at the end of the book that all is going to work out and that Bud will have a reasonably secure and happy future.
In some ways, Bud, Not Buddy is like a fairy tale, especially in its ending, but the vignettes of life in the Dirty Thirties are also reminiscent of the hard times which need to be endured before that happy ending can occur, except that the hard times are all too real and give an exceedingly vivid picture of existence on the edge, sometimes on the literal edge. Every city, for example, has, on its outskirts, a "Hooverville" (so-called because, as Bud has it explained to him, "[President] Hoover worked so hard at making sure every city has got one that it seems like it would be criminal to call them anything else.") These shantytowns were camps where people lived or paused between jumping off one freight and catching another, places where, on the whole, differences were ignored under the equalizing forces of poverty and unemployment. The morning that Bud was going to jump a freight train to Chicago, the police move in. With thousands of desperate men wanting to ride the rails, the police give up attempting to prevent them. Instead, they tear down the tarpaper and cardboard shelters of the "town" and throw the rubble on the fire which had welcomed Bud the night before while leaving the women and children who remained with nowhere else to go, nowhere to go.
Humour flashes out, frequently framed as one of "Bud Caldwell's Rules and Things For Having a Funnier Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself." Number 83, following Bud's Momma's saying, "Don't you worry, Bud, as soon as you get to be a young man I have a lot of things I'll explain to you," is: "If a Adult Tells You Not to Worry, and You Weren't Worried Before, You Better Hurry Up and Start 'Cause You're Already Running Late." These give poignant insights into the mind of a little boy who is, in some ways, street-wise and hardened ("My eyes don't cry no more", Bud explains matter-of-factly) and, in others, totally inexperienced. This is historical fiction, but of history not too far removed from our own time. In some ways, this makes it more difficult to get inside Bud's skin, but the effort is worth it. We rejoice when he finally finds some folks of his own, discovers jazz, and appears to be on the verge of getting a life. Some books widen horizons; this one stretches them out to Prairie dimensions.
Winner of the 1999 Newbery Medal.
Mary Thomas works in the libraries of two elementary schools in Winnipeg, MB.
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