Bud, Not Buddy
by Christopher Paul Curtis
Interests: history, American history, music, jazz, the Great Depression, racism, orphans
Yearling/Random House, 1999
Other books by this author: The Mighty Miss Malone, The Watsons go to Birmingham – 1963
Bud is ten years old when he hits the road. After years of abuse in orphanages and at the hands of foster families, he’s had enough. He never knew his father, but after his mother died he found a pile of flyers for a travelling jazz band hidden in a drawer, and decided the dashing band leader in the photo must be his father. And so, after yet another beating, as well as being locked overnight in a shed and stung by hornets, Bud runs off in search of “Herman Calloway and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression!!!!!!”.
On the road Bud meets a sassy girl in a shantytown (Desa Malone, who the author featured later in his novel The Mighty Miss Malone) and catches a ride with a kind stranger named Lefty Lewis. When he finally catches up with the Dusky Devastators he discovers he was not quite on the mark with his assumptions, as the imposing Calloway is not his father but his grandfather. And there is no tearful, happy reunion when he shows up, as the prickly old man must deal with news of the death of his beloved-though-estranged daughter. He’s not an easy man to warm up to, but Bud has such determination, wit and guile that he wins over the entire band and finally old Herman too. He joins the group and begins to learn to play the saxophone.
What could be a grim story is infused with such high spirits and humour that it makes Bud’s hardships much easier to take. He has a tough, skeptical view of the world and everyone he meets, but he’s still a kid, after all. Throughout the book he enlightens the reader with “Bud Caldwell’s Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself”. (He takes great pride in being one of the best liars in the world.)
Here’s another example of his take on things. Talking about when he was six and lost his first tooth, he says that grownups told him it was normal, but he wasn’t convinced.
“…it shakes you up a whole lot more than grown folks thinks it does when perfectly good parts of your body commence to loosening up and falling off of you. … Unless you’re as stupid as a lamppost you’ve got to wonder what’s coming off next, your arm? Your leg? Your neck? Every morning when you wake up it seems a lot of your parts aren’t stuck on as good as they used to be.”
This is yet another great novel about the Depression from Curtis. He’s included a lot about early jazz and even a bit about union organizing back when it was against the law. And in the notes at the end of the book it turns out that two characters were loosely based on Curtis’ own grandfathers – one (Lefty Lewis) pitched in the Negro Baseball Leagues and was a Pullman porter, the other really was the leader of a band called the “Dusky Devastators of the Depression!!!!!!” (Always advertised with six exclamation marks.) This is a fascinating historical novel full of optimism, charm, and a whole lot of humour.