Study Guide

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 Guilt and Blame

By Christopher Paul Curtis

Guilt and Blame

Rufus might as well have tied me to a tree and said, "Ready, aim, fire!" I felt like someone had pulled all my teeth out with a pair of rusty pliers. I wanted to knock on his door and tell him, "I am different," but I was too embarrassed so I walked the dinosaurs back home. (3.111)

We knew Kenny was perceptive, but wow. That description of how awful guilt feels is right on the money. Think back to a time you felt ashamed. How would you describe that feeling?

It was real embarrassing but tears just exploded out of my face and even though I knew she was going to be disappointed in me I told Momma how I'd hurt Rufus's feelings. (3.117)

Often when we do something we're ashamed of, we feel compelled to tell someone else about it—like Kenny does here. Why do you think Kenny spills the beans to Momma?

Leave it to Daddy Cool to kill a bird, then give it a funeral. Leave it to Daddy Cool to torture human kids at school all day long and never have his conscience bother him but to feel sorry for a stupid little grayish brown bird. (6.82)

What do you think triggers Byron's sense of guilt here?

The Wool Pooh. Oh, man. I gave the shoe one more hard tug and it popped loose from a frilly white sock. I got real scared. I walked as slowly and as quietly as I could out of the church. Maybe if I moved quietly he wouldn't come for me. Maybe if I walked and didn't look back he'd leave me alone. (14.47)

This moment right here is the source of Kenny's guilt at the end of the book. What makes this the particular moment he struggles with? What is the significance of the frilly sock?

I was waiting to see if the magic powers were going to treat me like a dog or a cat, or if when Byron or Joey woke up one morning they'd find a crumpled-up yellow towel where I was supposed to be. (15.21)

Poor Kenny—he thinks he might not deserve to be in the family anymore. He's waiting for someone else to tell him that it's going to be okay or that he really doesn't belong.

I'd never noticed what a little crybaby and snitch [Joey] was. Every time you turned around she was threatening to go tell on you or was whining about something or being just a plain old pest. After a while to get even with her I wouldn't even look at her. I started hating her guts. (15.24)

If Kenny feels so guilty about not saving Joey, why does he start to hate her? On what planet does that make sense?

"I'm not scared, I'm just real, real ashamed of myself." That was it. That was the main thing I'd finally found out from being a patient in the World-Famous Watson Pet Hospital. (15.80)

Another confession. Seems like an important part of how Kenny deals with guilt. But does it show results?

"Byron, I left Joey. I thought the Wool Pooh had her and instead of fighting him like you did, I left, I ran from him. How come you were brave enough to fight him and all I could do was run?" (15.84)

Aha! So Kenny's guilt is all about leaving Joey and not being brave. Do you think Kenny would still feel guilty if he weren't comparing himself to Byron?

"If you been spending so much time thinking about how you didn't save Joey why don't you stop and think about why she wasn't in that church, why don't you spend some time thinking about who it was that led her away?" (15.88)

On the other side of blame is credit. Can Kenny take credit for saving Joey's life?

"Today is the day you check out of the World-Famous Watson Pet Hospital. Don't let me catch you back there no more. You ain't got no cause to be ashamed or scared of nothing." (15.95)

What does leaving the pet hospital have to do with Kenny getting over his shame?