February 12, 2018

The Journey of Little Charlie

Written by Christopher Paul Curtis
Scholastic Canada
234 pp.
Ages 8-13
February 2018

Little Charlie Bobo, the son of a white sharecropper on the South Carolina plantation of Mr. Tanner, can hardly be called little for his size. At twelve, he is 6'4".  So, when Little Charlie's father is killed and cap'n Duke, the abusive overseer on the plantation, claims that he'd paid him fifty dollars upfront to help him retrieve money stolen from Mr. Tanner, Little Charlie has no recourse but to accompany the man.

Heading to Detroit, Little Charlie knows enough to listen and not say much to the brutal and racist cap'n Duke.
You can learn from anybody.  Even dimwits can teach you if you listen careful and pick at the kernels of corn from the horse crap they's dishing out. (pg. 71)
He quickly learns that the "thieves" they are searching out are slaves Lou and Cleytus and their young son Sylvester who'd escaped from the Tanner plantation ten years earlier.  With some assistance from the equally reprehensible Sheriff Turner and his associate Keegan, cap'n Duke captures the parents who have made a good life for themselves and their family and  now go by Eloise and Chester Desmarest.  But cap'n Duke is determined to get all the family, including the two-year-old twin daughters and son Sylvanus, a student at a school in Saint Catharines, Canada.  Though warned about going into Canada to retrieve escaped slaves, cap'n Duke with Little Charlie in tow get themselves cleaned up and travel by ferry and train to deceive Sylvanus into returning to the United States with them.

The Journey of Little Charlie may begin as a debt the young man is trapped into repaying but it becomes a journey of learning beyond any his poor existence at home had provided him.  Though his parents imparted some wisdom to him about survival and living a life of subservience, Little Charlie has had few opportunities–he cannot read–and never expected much from his life. Accompanying the vile cap'n Duke, Little Charlie is able to see for himself how the world outside of Possum Moan, South Carolina works, including entering Canada, a country which had abolished slavery decades earlier. For the first time, he could see, not just learn second-hand, what life was like for others, including the poor, the rich, "colored folk" and everyone.  The Journey of Little Charlie is a coming-of-age story of historically immense proportions; it is Little Charlie's journey outside of what he has always known and been taught. And he heeds the words of the old railway man, Ol'Jerry, they meet outside of "Dee-troit."
"I 'membered thinking at the time 'tis too bad this can't be a reg'lar part of living, where we all gets a chance to walk away from whatever train wreck we's made of our lives and run off to start up building something new." (pg. 79)
Just as he did in The Madman of Piney Woods (Scholastic, 2014), Christopher Paul Curtis brings together very different voices on a similar journey, though their intentions and perspectives vary greatly.  In The Madman of Piney Woods, he gives voice to a boy living in the shadow of his grandmother's harrowing immigration from Ireland and a distinct one to another whose family and friends live with the legacy of slavery.  They, like Little Charlie and cap'n Duke, live ordinary lives for the times.  But from the ordinary comes the extraordinary.  It is the righting of wrongs and redemption that carries the story forward, delivering history from the every day and teaching compassion from cruelty.
They never once looked back.                                                    If I was them, I wouldn't-a neither. (pg. 232)

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