CM . . .
. Volume XXIV Number 24. . . .February 23, 2018
The Journey of Little Charlie.
Christopher Paul Curtis.
Toronto, ON: Scholastic Canada, 2018.
234 pp., hardcover, $19.99.
Grades 4-11 / Ages 9-16.
Review by Ruth Latta.
There ain't been one second in this pass nine and a half year that we wasn't a waiting for this.***
We done had us 'most ten year to get ready so this ain't no surprise. We knowed it was coming. We knowed it would end... We done the best things folks can do up here and we had us all them years of heaven. And we stolt every last second of 'em from them Tanners! And ain't no way they can get 'em back neither."
The cap'n reached back and cuffed her in the face. She spit blood and said, "Jus' member, my dear, my beloved, that this ain't us no more. We's done, we's through, but we's done the best folk can do, and we's gonna live on, we's sent three tidings to live on."
Even though I knowed letting 'em go was the right thing to do, I kept having doubts. I always been tolt that they aren't the same as us, they don't feel things like white people do, they don't love their kids the same, they don't love nothing but ducking work and sleeping. I always been tolt they ain't even got souls.
The big lie in that showed itself when I seent how Syl had falled so hard for that pretty girl. The only critter I'd ever seent that look on afore was a human being. And I ain't done much studying on the Bible, but I believe it do say somewhere in there that all human beings has souls.
Little Charlie Bobo, a sharecropper's son living in South Carolina in 1858, is a strapping youth who looks older than his 12 years. He works hard in the fields helping his parents eke out a living on the farm they once owned but lost to local plantation owners, the Tanners.
Earlier, when the Bobo family ran out of food and had no credit left at the store, Pa worked at the Tanners' for a day, but he saw such cruelty that he wouldn't go back. "Pa said as harsh as Cap'n Buck [the Tanners' overseer] was on the white farmers near the Tanner plantation, he was even worse to the slaves that crost him."
The family's precarious life falls apart when Pa is killed in a freak accident. Shortly after that, Cap'n Buck turns up at the Bobo cabin, claiming that Charlie's father owed him fifty dollars for work not done. This sum, claims the cap'n, was advanced to him to accompany the cap'n up north and help him do a job. Little Charlie and his mother have no way of repaying the money, if in fact it was ever given to Pa at all. The Cap'n says the only way to make things right is for Charlie to go north with him and help him catch two thieves who stole from the Tanners.
Charlie sets out on a journey that is geographical and psychological. En route, he learns that Cap'n Buck is an official South Carolina slave catcher, and that they are headed for "Dee troit" to capture a couple of "darkies" and their son who fled the Tanner plantation 10 years earlier.
The Fugitive Slave Act, passed by the U.S. government in 1850, stipulated that African Americans in the "free" states of the north were required to furnish proof that they were not escaped slaves to any white person who demanded it. If they couldn't, they would be arrested and returned to slavery.
In Detroit, Cap'n Buck and Charlie capture the couple, now known as Mr. and Mrs. Demarest. The first quote at the beginning of this review is what Mrs. Demarest says to her husband while they are being held and beaten by the cap'n. From a letter he found in the Demarest’s home, the cap'n knows that their 13-year-old son is in Canada, and so he hands the couple over to the Detroit sheriff and sets out across the border with Little Charlie.
When Charlie asks about the money the Demarests allegedly stole, the cap'n says that they were the Tanners' property and that they "stole they own selfs", a concept that is hard for Charlie to understand.
The Detroit sheriff warns the cap'n about going into Canada to capture Sylvanus Demarest.
“You going to be fishing in a completely different pond when you go crost that river," he says. "Why, some of them white people crost there is downright hostile to letting even one darky come back."
The cap'n orders Charlie to approach Sylvanus at his school and convince him that he must come to Detroit because his parents need him. At the school, Charlie is surprised to see students "both colored and white", well dressed in identical school uniforms. Sylvanus believes Charlie's story, and, on the train to Detroit, they strike up a friendship, a circumstance which makes Charlie ashamed to be lying to him.
As the story continues, there is an attempted rescue by the (interracial) Chatham Buxton Vigilance Committee. A key turning point is Charlie's realization that, if the Demarest family is returned to slaver.y it will be his fault. (See the second quote at the beginning.)
"After getting to know Little Charlie," wrote Christopher Paul Curtis in his ‘Author's Note’, "I was convinced that even though he was raised in racism, ignorance and all encompassing poverty, he was part of the brave minority...who was capable of seeing the lie of what he'd been taught...and...decided to cross a line...."
Initially, Curtis intended to write a novel about Charlie and Sylvanus but got caught up in Charlie's character and decided to save Sylvanus for a future novel.
The journey, the dialect, and the central character's change of heart reminded me of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but there are key differences. Mark Twain's 1884 novel is intended for adult readers who know more about satire, irony and historical context than young readers do. Curtis doesn't use the "n" word that so many find objectionable in Twain's novel, but instead, uses another term of the era which may be less offensive: "darky". Curtis's African American characters are strong and intelligent. Like Twain, Curtis writes in dialect. Some teachers may worry that dialect works against their efforts to teach standardized spelling, but others may value the authenticity that dialect brings.
The 'Author's Note' provides historical information about the Fugitive Slave Law, the high value of slaves following the British abolition of the slave trade, and the African Americans who sought freedom and settled in the Windsor Chatham Buxton area of what is now Ontario. Christopher Paul Curtis has written eight novels for young people but came late in life to his vocation as a writer. Born in Flint, Michigan in 1953, he has been an actor, an auto worker, a groundskeeper, a warehouse clerk and a campaign manager for a U.S. senator. He published his first young adult historical novel in 1995 and graduated from the University of Michigan in 2000. Now living in Windsor, he has received over one hundred book awards. Readers who want to know more about his remarkable life can read his biography, Christopher Paul Curtis, by Judy Levin and Alison Stark Draper (Rosen Publishing, ISBN 978-1-4042-0458-4).
Ruth Latta's most recent novel is Grace in Love (Ottawa, Baico, 2018, firstname.lastname@example.org). Her 2017 novel, Grace and the Secret Vault, is for young adults.
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University of Manitoba
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