The Journey of Little Charlie
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.
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?
- Author: Christopher Paul Curtis
- Genre: Historical Fiction
- Topics: Great Boy Role Models, History
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: Scholastic Press
- Publication date: January 30, 2018
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 9 - 12
- Number of pages: 256
- Available on: Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
- Last updated: November 4, 2019
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