The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963
by Christopher Paul Curtis
Kenny tells us right off the bat that Byron is a juvenile delinquent, and that seems like a pretty accurate assessment for most of the novel. This kid is definitely trouble, and there are some moments where we really kind of hate him. But just like Kenny, Byron has some surprises in store for us.
Byron the Delinquent
Kenny loves watching Byron get into trouble, and let's face it, so do we. Byron never fails to make things interesting, like when he sets little parachutes on fire in the bathroom or comes home with a hairdo so bad that Dad shaves his head.
But as funny as these moments are, there are others that just make us cringe. Look at the time he beats up Larry Dunn in front of the whole school (Chapter 4). Sure, Larry stole Kenny's gloves, but by the time Byron is finished, Larry is thoroughly humiliated and hurt pretty badly. In these moments, Byron's delinquency goes beyond the typical "boys will be boys" stuff and we see he really does have a dark side. Shmoop admits we're a little baffled by this. Byron's family is kind and loving and fun, so where'd he learn to be so mean? Why does he take pleasure in hurting other kids?
We don't know for sure, but one thing we do know is that hate and cruelty become important themes in the book as the Watsons' story becomes wrapped up in the events of the Civil Rights Movement. See, at this point in time, there's a lot of hate flying around out there, and nobody has very good reasons for it. It's hard to understand why some people got so angry over whites and blacks riding the same buses or going to the same schools. And some people certainly did seem to take pleasure in hurting those who were fighting for equal rights.
We don't have any answers for these actions either, but it seems to us that it's no accident we get a character like Byron to love/hate. Maybe he's supposed to show us that people aren't all bad or all good. Maybe he's supposed to remind us that we all have the capacity to be cruel, or the capacity to stand up for what's right.
Byron's Sensitive Side
Yup, he's got a sensitive site, and it surfaces at some pretty surprising moments. Take the bird incident for example. Byron throws stolen cookies at a mourning dove perched on a telephone wire. Typical delinquent Byron. Then he actually hits the bird and kills it (with a cookie), and suddenly he's so upset that he's throwing up and crying uncontrollably.
Wait, what? Did Joey beam herself into his body or something? This is Byron. He barely cares about other human beings, but here he is crying over a bird? It makes no sense. Kenny is confused. We're confused. Heck, we're betting even Byron is confused. But hang on, because this is a really important moment for him. Byron's reaction here reveals that he's not just a bully; he's not all bad. He's genuinely sorry to have killed a helpless creature, and to show it, he gives the bird a little funeral. But if that's true, then why is he so mean to everyone else? Whatever is going on with Byron is obviously too complicated to just write him off as a bully.
Let's keep digging.
Later in the story, Kenny almost drowns while swimming in the lake at Grandma's, but Byron saves his life. No kidding. If Byron hadn't pulled Kenny out of the water, Kenny probably would have died. That's a big deal, don't you think? Once Kenny coughs all the water out of his lungs and it's clear he'll be okay, Byron just loses it. We mean crying and shaking and kissing Kenny all over his head. Sound like Byron to you?
Even though Kenny nearly dies, he's still surprised that Byron is so upset about this and frankly, we are too. This certainly doesn't fit Byron's tough guy routine. But think about it: both of these super sensitive moments are about death. Byron might play it cool most of the time, but Shmoop is starting to get the feeling that he is really afraid of losing the people who matter to him. And we're not saying the bird mattered exactly, but it was a moment where Byron had to realize that death can come in an instant, often as a complete shock.
Maybe his tough act is all about protecting himself from being vulnerable and getting hurt. Maybe he's mean to everyone because he doesn't know how to be nice without feeling weak. Then again, maybe he's just a teenager with so many hormones flying around, he doesn't know what to feel.
Byron 2.0: New and Improved
Byron definitely changes more than anyone in Watsons. By the end of the story, he barely resembles his former delinquent self, and Shmoop is pretty glad about that. Byron's final transformation comes about when he thinks Joey died in the church. Sheesh, almost losing his brother and then his sister in the same week? If that doesn't change a person, who knows what would. When Byron hears about the bomb, he goes running out the door without thinking twice; and later, Kenny sees him at the church crying and calling for Joey.
When the whole family ends up safe and sound back in Flint, and Byron is a new man. He knows Kenny is having a really hard time with what happened at the church, and he's nice about it. Like really nice. He checks on Kenny in his hiding place behind the couch. He takes Kenny to play basketball and makes all his tough-guy friends be nice to him. He even starts sleeping on the couch so Kenny won't have to be alone.
Okay, crying after Kenny almost dies is one thing, but extended periods of kindness? This really is a whole new Byron, and here's what Shmoop thinks: that bomb was Byron's third wakeup call. It was the third time that death came up and surprised him and he almost lost something really important. It seems that this is the final push Byron needs to get him to think about how he treats people, and instead of protecting himself, he starts protecting the people he loves.
It's a good thing too because Kenny really needs his big brother. Byron is the one who finally gets Kenny to come out of hiding. Byron gets Kenny to talk about the bombing and Byron convinces Kenny that he has nothing to be ashamed of. Byron helps Kenny see that even though life isn't fair and bad things happen, it's important to keep living. And because of Byron, Kenny starts to believe that he'll be okay.
Now who could want a better big brother than that?Byron's Timeline