The Journey of Little Charlie

Book review by
Jan Carr, Common Sense Media
The Journey of Little Charlie Book Poster Image
Tense, powerful novel of boy and slave catcher in 1858.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Lead-up to U.S. Civil War. Circumstances of plantation slavery in South Carolina vs. those of people who'd escaped slavery in the North. Economic relationship of white sharecroppers to plantation. Geography of North and South, plus northern U.S. proximity to Canada. Geography of Canadian border near Detroit. Strength of abolitionist sentiment in Detroit and Canada. Period details: steam locomotives, infrequent bathing, telegrams, horse travel and stabling. Colloquial vernacular of the era.

Positive Messages

You can overcome and actively work against the prejudices and hatred you're raised with. Even if you've done things you're ashamed of, you can change course and alter your behavior. If you know something's right, you can choose to act on the side of good, even if it puts you at risk. Slavery was brutal and inhuman, and though the laws of the time upheld it, some people acted heroically in defiance of the laws.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Though Charlie's uneducated, he's a thoughtful, sensitive boy with empathy for others. When faced with possibility of changing his behavior and doing the right and humane thing, he rises heroically to the occasion. He's clever and alert, keeping his wits about him and assessing difficult and potentially violent situations. He tenderly comforts newborn puppies frightened by gunshots. The people in Canada (black and white) and the free blacks in Detroit, and the white blacksmith who undoes the shackles all act to counteract and work against the unjust laws of the time.

Violence

Cap'n Buck is a brutal and sadistic overseer, whipping escaped woman with a bullwhip. He frequently threatens Charlie, Charlie's mom, the escaped family with guns. He punishes the enslaved workers by "cat-hauling," a violent punishment using cat claws. People are shackled with heavy iron yokes that leave gashes. Charlie's family also exhibits some violence. His dad "cuffs" him on the head "for being hardheaded." His mom pummels him with her fists when the dad dies. Dad dies in bloody accident, and Charlie vividly describes the gash in his forehead from his ax. Dead bodies in train wreck are described as "a crispy piece of meat."

Sex
Language

African American people are called "darkies." One character is referred to as "Petey the dimwit."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Journey of Little Charlie is by Christopher Paul Curtis, who's won the Newbery Award, two Newbery Honors, and numerous other awards for books including Bud, Not Buddy, Elijah of Buxton, and The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963. Curtis is African American, but this book's narrated by a 12-year-old white boy, a poor South Carolina sharecropper in 1858 who's coerced into helping a brutal slave catcher. The story's narrated in a thick Southern period dialect, but readers will probably get the hang of it after a few pages. Curtis doesn't flinch from the subject matter. Blacks are called "darkies," as per the time, and there's some violence in Charlie's family and lots from the sadistic Cap'n Buck, who whips the runaways and worse. Ultimately, the story has a human and humane streak that's life affirming, while bringing history vividly alive.

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What's the story?

Tumultuous events come fast and furious in THE JOURNEY OF LITTLE CHARLIE. When Little Charlie Bobo, a 12-year-old from a poor white sharecropper family, loses his dad in a bloody accident, Charlie himself comes under suspicion from the sheriff. Then Charlie and his mom are threatened with eviction and violence by overseer Cap'n Buck, who claims the dad owed him money. To pay the debt, Charlie goes north with Cap'n to "Dee-troit." Though uneducated and illiterate, Charlie's a thoughtful and sensitive soul with a good heart, and at first he thinks he's going to help catch thieves who've stolen money from the plantation. When it dawns on him that Cap'n is a slave catcher, and the "theft" is the lives of enslaved people who've escaped to Detroit and Canada, he's faced with difficult decisions. Can he buck Cap'n Buck, and how much can he risk by helping the people they're hunting down?

Is it any good?

This masterful historical novel set just before the Civil War is both powerful and empowering. The Journey of Little Charlie vividly conveys the brutality of slavery, while offering hope for both individual and societal change. It draws much of its strength from the frank observations of its poor white narrator, whose own life is hardscrabble and not sentimentalized. Though Charlie's only 12, he shoulders crushing responsibilities and weathers a stream of casual cruelty from his mom. But author Christopher Paul Curtis makes sure that we like and root for Charlie from the first pages, when he's shown sweetly tending a vulnerable litter of puppies.

The appeal of this finely drawn character is that he's not a perfect human. Curtis makes clear that Charlie's a product of, and participates in, the prejudices of his time, exhibiting the expected attitudes about "darkies," and taunting "Petey the dimwit." But Charlie feels ashamed of bad behavior, and makes very conscious choices to act, and even think, differently. In this, he serves as an excellent model for readers to emulate. Though the novel's sobering, it's also graced with moments of lightness; for instance, when Charlie reflects on the Cap'n "smelling ripish," though he himself's much cleaner since "don't too many summer months get away from me without one bath in 'em." This beautiful, transcendent novel moves quickly toward its hopeful end.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the fate of the family who escaped slavery in The Journey of Little Charlie. Did you know that they could be recaptured even after they'd reached the free states in the North? Had you heard of the Fugitive Slave Act?

  • What do you know about the American Civil War? How close is the year of this story, 1858, to the start of the war?

  • Why do you think the author chose to tell the story from the point of view of a boy who's a white sharecropper? What does he say about that decision in his author's note at the end? How is sharecropping different from being enslaved on a plantation?

Book details

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For kids who love stories of injustice and the Civil War

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