Wednesday, February 09, 2005

This Best of All Possible Worlds

Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis, Read by Paul Avery, Random House, Inc., 2000

While this book is a children’s novel and is recommended for listeners age seven and up, it is both good enough for adult readers and not good enough for children. It is a short, pleasurable read that had me smiling all the way through at ten year old Bud Caldwell’s exuberant and childish view of the world, while at the same time younger readers may find the lack of menace from the world of adults can ring untrue.

Throughout this story, which is essential childhood quest cliché — young Bud, orphaned, sets out to find his real father — with some slight variations, adults are overwhelmingly good-hearted. Of the two bad adult characters, the mean ones, the first is rushed off the stage after only treading it for perhaps five minutes, while the second only lingers at the edges before being embraced in the story’s bosom. I certainly don’t think that all books, adults’ and children’s should unearth the worst in humanity, but neither do I think readers are particularly well served by authors who paint everything in such rose-tinted sepia.

Even though Bud’s story starts straight off with one tribulation after another, he keeps his youthful exhilaration and optimism about him, and his struggles never really seem to affect him. Within the first two chapters, we learn that he is an orphan, that he’s getting placed with yet another foster family, that he gets beat up by his foster brother, and that when the family gets mad at Bud for the fight they lock him in a shed where he is attacked by wasps. Anyone else might be a trifle more bitter. But not Bud. He’s good-natured enough that his entire revenge for all this is to sneak into his foster brother’s room and do the hot-water-bedwetting trick on the boy.

When he escapes, because it’s the Depression, he first goes to a bread-line for breakfast then to his favorite hideout and retreat: the library. This starts disc two with a nice long love letter to libraries and books. The smells of paper, the new dust jackets, and the coolness of the air. There he is foiled in finding assistance from his favorite librarian, who has married and moved away to Chicago, a somewhat pointless bit of backstory with which nothing is done. When he hooks up with another orphanage boy, Bugs, they decide to ride the rails out west. Bud is sold on the deal when Bugs tells him how you can go to the bathroom by just hanging out the side of the train and “you get a pretty good breeze.”

When this plan fails, Bug managing to get on the train while Bud falls on his face, our irrepressible hero decides its time to begin tracking down the man he believes is his father, Herman E. Calloway, a bandleader of a small jazz band. Bud has no evidence for this, just the child’s unshakable belief in unspoken assumptions, buoyed by the fact that his mother kept a couple flyers from the band’s appearance in Flint.

The road trip to catch up with Calloway is a bit unbelievable, though filled with humorous events, characters who pop up and provide a frankly implausible level of assistance. While I would truly like to believe adults were this fine and upstanding even during the Great Depression, and while some leeway should be given to a children’s book, Curtis needn’t have gilded the lily so thoroughly. The Pinkerton goons don’t fire on the tramps trying to jump the train, white librarians give little black boys books of Civil War photographs just because, a Pullman porter out late at night gives Bud a ride first back into Flint then all the way to Grand Rapids, then the jazz band adopts Bud right off the bat and lets him come live with them. Everything is a bit too pat and everything turns out for the best as though this were a Panglossian fable.

Part of what makes the book enjoyable however, is simply Bud. He is witty, discourses at length on his long, long list of Bud Caldwell’s Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself, and favors us with enjoyably novel metaphors like : “trapped like a cockroach under a dishcloth.” Most of his rules and maxims are how to handle adults and what coded language adults use with children, like “gone” means “dead” and “I need your help” means “go get something for me.” This character, with a far more challenging journey, would have made for a truly excellent book.

Reader James Avery is a familiar voice from TV, especially for those who grew up in the 80s watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Here he reads with the breathless youthful excitement of a child and with an infectious sense of enjoyment. The lightness of the book’s composition is easily overlooked by simply settling back to enjoy without too much critical effort.


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