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The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 is an easy enough read that you could whiz through it in an afternoon. However, there is a lot of depth to the content that can provide you with insight into the historical time. The following character list and chapter summaries should help you in writing a paper, passing a test or contributing to a class discussion.
Kenneth: (Kenny) a 10-year old smart kid often picked on by his peers for his intelligence and his pesky lazy eye.
Byron: (By) Kenny’s older brother who often takes on the title of head teaser and bully. All of his bad behavior is what sends the Watsons to Birmingham.
Joetta: (Joey) Kenny’s little sister. She falls victim to Byron’s pranks as well but mostly because she is the youngest and isn’t aware of his trickery. When the church bomb goes off, she avoids it because of Kenny’s love and protection of her.
Wilona: (Momma) the mother of the 3 siblings and the wife of Daniel. Her hometown is Birmingham and she truly hates the cold Michigan weather.
Daniel: (Dad) the father of the 3 siblings and the husband of Wilona. He is from Flint, Michigan where the family resides and is just as determined as Momma to stop Byron’s behavior. His archenemies in Birmingham are Moses aka Hambone and Grandma Sands.
Grandma Sands: the mother of Momma and grandmother of the Watsons.
Buphead: fellow delinquent and friend of Byron’s.
Rufus and Cody: country transplants from Arkansas, new to Clark Elementary. Rufus is the eldest of the two and Kenny’s newest friend. He is also often teased but for being southern fried and for being poor.
Mr. Robert: Grandma Sands’ dearest friend after Grandpa passed away.
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The book opens with Kenny and his family trying to make it through an extremely bitter cold day in Flint, Michigan all of them huddled up on the couch under a blanket but that does little to keep them warm and neither does the several layers of clothes they are wearing. Momma is disgusted by the cold, as usual, and Dad does everything he can to avoid setting her off into usual tirade of how she ended up there in the first place. If only she had married Hambone Henderson back home in Alabama, well that’s dad’s name for him at least; too bad all of his warnings about igloo living were not enough to keep her in the Jim Crow South.
To take the edge off the icy exterior that has formed about Momma’s attitude, Dad retells how he ended up with her instead of that Hambone. Everyone busts their guts laughing at Dad’s reenactments and embellishments, except Byron who has to play too cool for school. Eventually they decide to leave their cold house and move the huddling over to Aunt Cydney’s house.
When the Brown Bomber cannot be moved from the snow, Dad sends Kenny and By to dig it out. With Byron as devilish as he is and just having pulled a mean prank on Kenny with fellow delinquent Buphead, Kenny immediately puts his guards up. A jar of Vaseline is what Momma uses to help re-grow the skin on Byron’s lips after that accident with those lips and the driver’s side mirror in sub-zero temperatures. Vanity can be harmful to your health and Byron learns that the hard way. Never kiss a frozen mirror with moist lips. And you wonder why they call them the Weird Watsons.
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Kenny finds relief from Larry Dunn, one of his many bullies, when two new country kids from Down South board the bus one morning. He is so happy he can relinquish the title of easiest target for teasing that he calls the poor souls his saviors from God.
Kenny shares with readers that his brother has given him a some good advice on cutting down on the bullying and teasing. Byron shows his rarely seen human side.
Although Kenny finally finds a true friend in Rufus, he ends up doing something to hurt Rufus’ feelings one day on the bus. Even with his tattered clothing and Arkansas accent, Kenny realizes that he is a good person to have around when he wants to play with dinosaurs. It doesn’t take long for Kenny to realize how badly he messed up with Rufus. After a talk with Momma, things started to brighten up and The World’s Greatest Dinosaur War Ever was on again.
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Momma had lived up north 15 years but the cold in Michigan still got her worked up into full mommy mode when it came to keeping her kids warm. Because of her obsession with fighting off the frigid air, Kenny and Joey had to suffer on their trips back and forth to school wearing several layers of clothing that was pain to change in and out of once they got there and when it was time to leave. The heat from wearing all of those layers was unbearable!
After a Maytag wash cycle by Larry Dunn, Rufus and Kenny discover that you actually can paint a pair brown leather gloves black with shoe polish. By and Buphead are to the rescue!
Momma threatens By with burning his fingers if she catches him playing with matches again. That didn’t stop him because a little later Kenny hears him playing with them in the bathroom. When Momma catches him she tries her best to make good on her promise but little Joey won’t let it happen. By avoided getting his fingers burned off but he didn’t avoid having to deal with Dad when he got home.
Momma and Dad sign up for a charge account for groceries with Mr. Mitchell. During dinner, Momma sends the two boys to get a few things to finish preparation. When Byron is told that he should request that the food be put on charge he flies off the handle thinking they are on welfare. Once Kenny signs for the food, because Byron is too ashamed to, it is not long before Byron starts running up his parents’ tab.
Kenny is ambushed by Swedish crèmes thrown at him by Byron in the alley behind the store. While they are back there, Byron shoots one of the cookies at a bird and kills it. As his emotions get the best of him seeing the bird die at his hands, he throws up the stolen snacks he was munching before the murder. When Kenny tries to revel in Byron’s victory of killing the bird, Byron lashes out at Kenny. Later on Kenny returns to the scene and finds that By had buried the bird and given it a little funeral. Kenny finds himself more confused by his brothers teasing, meanness, and sensitivity.
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By gets a conk (harsh version of a chemical hair relaxer) put in his hair against his parents’ wishes. Momma is absolutely livid when she admonishes him and informs him that Dad will see to his demise after work. Kenny takes the rare opportunity to tease By as he waits for Dad to get home only Joey spoils the turned tables torment by being extra sensitive to By’s feelings.
After a good shaving of By’s head, Dad gets on the phone to Alabama. After the conversation is over with Grandma Sands, the kids think things have blown over until a week later when Dad shows up with a spanking, new record player, called the Ultra-Glide, for the Brown Bomber.
The children realize something is up with their parents but they aren’t exactly sure of what it is. After dazzling the family with the Brown Bomber’s new record player, Dad breaks the news to By that he’s going Down South for the summer and potentially the next school year.
Early Sunday morning, a week before the trip to Birmingham, Kenny and Dad sit and have a talk out in the car as they listen to records. Dad explains to Kenny that Byron is being sent Down South to get a good understanding of how the world works outside of his current world. With the recent, bad events happening down there between whites and blacks, Dad states that it is still quieter down there than it is in Flint and that’s best for By right now.
The night before the trip Momma and Dad get wind of a plan of By's to make a run for it to avoid Alabama. That night By sleeps in their room.
Comedy ensues for the start of the trip as Dad cuts up southern style once again and Byron goes back on his promise to hurt Momma and Dad real good with the good ole silent treatment. Momma keeps the round-trip itinerary.
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Dad has a different outlook on the trip and Momma’s book is shot down as he drives through Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee all in day one of the trip rather than the planned three days.
As they head back to I-75 to coast along some more, Dad asks everyone to let their fingers run through the air as the car moves along the highway. He likens the sensation to running your fingers through God’s beard.
By the time the Brown Bomber lands in Alabama Dad has a beard of his own. In 18 long hours, the Watsons make it to Birmingham. Kenny and Joetta have never met Grandma Sands and all three get teary-eyed at the sight of each other. It seems the Alabama dirt has already broken By down and he’s yes ma’am-ing and no ma’am-ing with the best of ‘em before they are in the house good.
To Kenny’s chagrin, By is having a jolly good time down south and is eating up every story told to him. He is already on the straight and narrow. Instead of rebelling, he’s falling in love with the place and Kenny can’t wait to get away, if only the heat wouldn’t keep putting him to sleep he’d be packed and waiting.
Momma finds out the true nature of Grandma Sands relationship with Mr. Robert.
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Grandma Sands warns the children to stay away from Collier’s Landing on their trip to get water for the house, something about a whirlpool catching a boy up in the water and taking him under. Kenny is determined for some country-time, Fantastic Adventure and shucks the warning. By tries to sway them to go down to the public swimming pool in the opposite direction but to no avail. Kenny still can’t figure out what is up with him.
The signs at the landing didn’t say anything about a Wool Pooh, the evil brother of Winnie the Pooh, so Kenny trudged on as the cool, deep blue water lured him in. The square fingered and toed Wool Pooh nearly took him under but “Byron, the angel” came through to rescue him from the water. Once he was on land again, Byron let loose a ton of emotion after seeing his brother dying and having to save his young life.
Kenny is still trying to get over his near death experience with Wool Pooh when he feels the earth shake while sitting under a Magnolia in the yard behind Grandma’s house. Everyone scatters to find Joey as the news comes in that her church had just been bombed, only Kenny couldn’t move. The community sprints to the wreckage to find their children. Kenny is the only one to approach the bombed building. Through hysteria, he sees a familiar being.
Wool Pooh is at the church and the sight of his faceless form stirs Kenny from his dreamland. On the way home as he glides past what seems like throngs of people in the streets, Kenny makes his way back to Grandma’s house where Wool Pooh teases him with Joey’s shiny, shiny black shoe. Soon he comes out of the hallucinations he was experiencing and realizes he and his sister both had managed to avoid Wool Pooh’s square fingers.
That night the Watsons Head back to Flint with Momma and Dad worried sick about Kenny. His odd disappearances have them unsure of how to handle treating him after what happened, wondering what he actually saw and if he was really at the church after the bombing. Joey tells a story where he leads her back to Grandma Sands. What his parents don’t realize is that Kenny’s disappearances and when he reappears occur before and after he visits the World-Famous Watson Pet Hospital to recoup and heal through their magic powers after the disturbing images he saw that day in Birmingham.
Momma tries to force Kenny to interact with his siblings and Rufus and Cody but things are different now. Each one of them seemed to have lost their charm. Soon By discovers Kenny behind the couch and then everyone starts to treat him special. This was the first time he had ever known By to be this nice to him. By fills him on how he saved Joey and tells him how brave he was for doing what he and the grown-ups couldn’t do that day and that there were no magic powers or a Wool Pooh. After their talk, Kenny reflects on the reality of magic powers and the square-toed man recognizing that there is some truth to these fairytales.