The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963
by Christopher Paul Curtis
At first glance, Larry Dunn is a bully, plain and simple. Most fourth-graders at Clark Elementary hate and fear him, and with good reason. Larry is famous for something he calls "Maytag washes" (4.82). Imagine being in a washing machine that's spinning and shooting snow and ice in your face over and over. Yeah, unpleasant. Plus, he's relentlessly cruel when it comes to picking on other kids, especially Rufus, whom we love. But even though we really want to just plain hate Larry, a careful reader will see that even Larry Dunn doesn't have it so easy.
For one thing, all winter long, Larry wears socks on his hands instead of real mittens or gloves. On the day Byron beats up Larry for stealing Kenny's gloves, Kenny notices that all Larry has on is a skinny windbreaker that's ripped under both arms and a T-shirt underneath—and it's winter. In Michigan.
We're guessing Larry isn't much better off than Rufus. That doesn't excuse Larry's actions, but it might help us understand them. Maybe Larry Dunn has decided that it's better to be the bully than the victim. Maybe he's so relentlessly mean because he wants to make sure the other kids fear him so they won't pick on him for being poor. If you think about it, that's a pretty sad choice for a fourth-grader to have to make.
Grandma Sands is Momma's momma. She is infamous in the Watson house, but it's been over ten years since they last visited her, which means that Kenny and Joey have never even met her before. However, the kids have heard so many stories about how strict she is that Kenny says, "I was expecting a troll. I thought Grandma Sands would be bigger than Dad, I thought she'd be foaming at the mouth like she had rabies" (11.60).
Instead, she's tiny old lady who demands hugs and kisses from everyone and cries because she's so happy to have her family visit. The stories aren't all wrong, though, and it's a matter of minutes before she has Byron saying "Yes, ma'am" and "No, ma'am." It looks like Grandma isn't one to be messed with either; now we know where Momma gets it.
Buphead is Byron's best friend and fellow juvenile delinquent. He's Byron's sidekick, his partner in crime, and the two seem to be joined at the hip. Whenever Byron is in trouble, you can bet that Buphead is somehow involved. In fact, it's Buphead who gives Byron the conk to straighten his hair, which is the last straw with Momma and Dad. They're convinced that if they could just get Byron away from Buphead for a while, Byron might finally straighten up.
Mr. Robert is Grandma Sands's "friend." He lives with her, though, so we're pretty sure they're kind of an item. We don't really know much about him, but he seems like a nice enough guy. He takes the kids fishing and everyone seems to like him except Momma. Momma doesn't really dislike him; she's just not too sure how she feels about her own momma having a boyfriend. In a way, Mr. Robert represents how much about Birmingham has changed since Momma was last there. Things are a lot different, and the Birmingham that Momma longs for on cold Michigan nights might not really exist anymore.