Study Guide

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 Mortality

By Christopher Paul Curtis

Mortality

The bird's head drooped backward and was rolling from side to side. Dead as a donut. [...] I looked right at By and his face was all twisted up and his eyes were kind of shut. He dropped the bird, walked over to the green-apple tree and started throwing up. (6.69)

Um… is this the same Byron from the first five chapters? Doesn't it seem strange that he's so upset about killing a bird? Why does the bird's death matter to him?

Right in the spot where the bird had crashed By had dug a little grave, and on top of the grave there were two Popsicle sticks tied together in a cross. (6.81)

People deal with death in all different ways. One way? By doing something to honor the life that was lost. And that seems to be Byron's strategy. Could this shed some light on why it's so hard for Kenny to deal with the death he sees in the church?

Joe Collier had put up another sign on a giant tree: "WARNING! DANGER! NO SWIMMING! SIX LIFES BEEN LOST HERE! BAD DROP OFF! Signed Joe Collier." Six? Grandma Sands had said one little boy drowned here, not six! (13.30)

Okay, we get it. Don't go in. Or should we say, DON'T GO IN! Kenny sees this very clear warning before he goes in the water. So why does he have such a hard time believing that death truly is a danger here?

That's when he came swimming real slow out of the deep, and even though my head was underneath the dark water I could see him coming right at me. He didn't look like he was related to Winnie-the-Pooh at all, he was big and gray with hard square-looking fingers. Where he should have had a face there was nothing but dark gray. Where he should have had eyes there was nothing but a darker colder-looking color. He grabbed my leg and started pulling me down. (13.50)

The Woooool Pooooooh. So scary. We're pretty sure the Wool Pooh is a symbol for death, and this is how Kenny pictures it. Does it remind you of any personifications of death that you're familiar with?

That's when I got really scared. I'd seen enough cartoons to know that when your head goes down three times it doesn't ever come up again! I knew if I went down one more time I was dead as a donut! (13. 65)

Even as he's beginning to drown, Kenny has an unrealistic, childlike view of death. He bases his observations about death on a cartoon, and he seems to think the number of times his head goes under will determine if he lives or dies.

Byron was shaking like he was getting electrocuted and crying like a baby and kissing the top of my head over and over! (13.66)

If Byron is so upset after he saves Kenny, why does Kenny seem perfectly calm and even confused about why Byron is crying?

I got right next to where the door used to be when the guy came out with a little girl in his arms. He had on the same thing Dad did, a T-shirt and pajama pants, but it looked like he'd been painting with red, red paint. (14.42)

Kenny sees death for real this time—right in front of him—but he still can't bring himself to admit it. He describes the blood as paint because it's too scary to think that all that red is a little girl's blood.

I tried to remember if I'd been mean to Joey this morning. I guessed I hadn't. I never did tell her how she helped Byron save my life in the water. I guessed I should have. (14.50)

Why does Kenny wonder about how he treated Joey after he thinks she's dead? What do you think the author is trying to tell us here?

However [the bomb] got in the church it had killed four little girls, blinded a couple more and sent a bunch of other people to the hospital. I couldn't stop wondering if those two little girls I saw on the lawn were okay. (15.1)

Not to sound harsh, but we're pretty sure that those two girls on the lawn were victims of the bombing. Why is Kenny so reluctant to admit this to himself?

[Byron] was very wrong when he said the Wool Pooh was something he'd made up. If he'd ever had his ankle grabbed by it he'd know it was real, if he'd seen the way he was crouched down, crawling around in the dust and smoke of the church in Birmingham he'd know it wasn't some made-up garbage, if he'd ever seen those horrible toes he'd know the Wool Pooh was as serious as a heart attack. (15.101)

Kenny still believes in the Wool Pooh—do you? Do you think Kenny really saw it in the church?