The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963

The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 Summary and Analysis of Chapters 11, 12, & 13


Chapter 11

Kenny falls asleep in the car for a long time; when he wakes up everyone except for his father is still asleep, and there is something wrong with the record player. It seems to be stuck, playing the same line from "Yakety Yak" over and over. Since the record player is broken, Daniel has started listening to "hillbilly music" on the radio. Daniel jokes that he has decided to change all of their names to country names once they return to Flint: Kenny will be Homer.

Daniel continues fooling around and says that he learned in a scientific magazine that if he makes a buzzing sound with a frequency similar to that of a vacuum cleaner, it will cause everyone around him to fall asleep. He says this is what he did and is why the Watsons have all been sleeping so much. Sure enough, they fall asleep again, and Kenny wakes up to hear Wilona saying in a heavy Southern accent, "Babies, we home!"

Kenny is surprised by how much Birmingham looks like Flint; there are the same houses and trees everywhere. Grandma Sands comes out to greet the Watsons once they pull up; from all the stories he had heard about her, Kenny had expected her to be a troll, but she is actually a tiny old woman with a thick Southern drawl. Wilona hugs her, and the kids slowly make their way over to hug her too, and she cries when she sees them. When Byron hugs Grandma Sands, Kenny gets the feeling that Byron will destroy her. The trip, perhaps, might not be as good of an idea as Daniel and Wilona had thought.

Grandma Sands tells Byron to go to the nearby store and buy some chicken for dinner, and does not let him question her. She says that Byron can be put to good use since Mr. Robert is not as much help as he used to be. She does not give very much information about Mr. Robert, but Wilona suspects that he is a boyfriend of sorts and is not sure that she approves. Kenny is more concerned with the fact that Byron is submitting nicely to all of Grandma Sands's requests, without any fighting back at all.

Chapter 12

Kenny is not yet used to the Birmingham heat, and finds that the climate is particularly bad when he sleeps. The Watsons soon meet Mr. Robert and his old hunting dog; Mr. Robert talks about how he saved the dog's life when they were out hunting raccoons one day, when a raccoon pulled the dog under the water in a lake and nearly drowned him.

Wilona has spent most of her first day commenting on things that have changed in Birmingham since she left. She asks about Mr. Robert in a slightly accusing way, and Grandma Sands says sternly that he is her dearest friend and reminds Wilona that her husband -- Wilona's father -- has been gone for nearly twenty years.

Chapter 13

The next day the Watsons go fishing. Mr. Robert warns them to stay away from a place called Collier's Landing, where a little boy drowned in a whirlpool a few years back. Kenny, however, decides that since it is forbidden, they have to go. Joey refuses immediately, and Byron starts scaring them with a story about the "Wool Pooh" (a contortion of what Mr. Robert really said, whirlpool) who is Winnie the Pooh's evil twin brother. According to Byron, the Wool Pooh pulls kids down under the water with him. Kenny is not scared off, though; instead, he is surprised that Byron is turning down the chance for another Fantastic Adventure. He decides to go to Collier's Landing by himself.

Kenny sees a warning sign as he makes his way over but chooses to ignore it, deciding that Joe Collier himself put it there just to keep people from swimming in his lake. He thinks that the Wool Pooh story is nothing but garbage. He wades into the lake, feeling all the small fish around him and attempting to catch one. Farther out in the deeper water is a turtle. As Kenny moves over to this animal, though, the rocks slip from under his feet and he is caught in churning water. He tries to swim out of the whirlpool, but he cannot fight the current.

He screams out for help. Suddenly, Kenny believes that he sees the Wool Pooh, grabbing his feet and pulling him down into the dark water. He thinks he sees Joey in angel form, telling him to swim for the surface one more time. As he kicks, Byron actually appears and pulls Kenny out of the water and onto the shore. Kenny vomits up a huge amount of water, but he is okay. Byron is shaking, repeating Kenny's name, kissing the top of his head, and even crying.


Until now, the South has been presented as an alien world for Kenny and his siblings. Their mother speaks highly of it, since it is where she grew up; however, their father criticizes it for its discriminatory practices and its apparently strange culture, which includes things like "hillbilly music." Either way, though, the South has been described to the Watson children as unlike Flint in every way possible. This is why Kenny is so surprised to see that Birmingham actually looks the same as Flint, as far as landscape and houses go. In many ways, Birmingham is similar to home. In other ways, though, it certainly is not.

The entire first part of the book focused primarily on the nuclear family of Daniel, Wilona, and the Watson kids. Until this point, Wilona was never portrayed as anything other than a mother to these children; she was firm but fair, she made the rules, she doted on her children lovingly, and she took care of them and punished them when necessary. Now, though, the frame has expanded to include Grandma Sands, Wilona's own mother.

Now that Grandma Sands and Wilona's relationship is a focus of the narrative, Wilona becomes the child and Grandma Sands becomes the mother, mirroring the mother-child relationship that Wilona has with her own children. This dynamic is particularly interesting for Kenny to watch. Wilona's behavior in the discussion about Mr. Robert is very similar to her own children's behavior when they disagree with her, and Kenny notes that he has never seen his mother get scolded before. Expanding the family to include the grandmother is extremely important, because such expansion shows how familial roles can change based on perspective.

But since readers continue to see things only through the eyes of Kenny, a child -- and since this novel is intended for young readers -- mature considerations such as Grandma Sands's relationship with Mr. Robert are hinted at but never described in detail. Similarly intentional limitations on perspective can be seen earlier in the novel, for instance when Wilona and Daniel secretly talk about their visit to Alabama or Byron's discipline issues. This writing strategy makes sense, since these are not things that would concern Kenny, and since he prefers to focus on matters of greater interest to kids like him. This goes to show, though, that point of view has a considerable effect on which parts of a full story are revealed to readers; since readers can only experience what the narrator experiences, some things are necessarily left out.

The Wool Pooh is one of the most obvious symbols in this story. Since the Wool Pooh functions much as the grim reaper does in contemporary culture, it represents death. Death is not something Kenny has ever thought about or encountered before; naturally, he does not believe in it at first. Byron presents the idea of death in an absurd way, but there were other warnings (aside from Byron's) and Kenny refused to heed them because he believed that death could not touch him. But the moment he begins to get pulled under the water, Kenny sees the Wool Pooh and realizes that his life can be in danger if he makes reckless decisions.

The lake incident appears to have a profound effect on Byron, too, even though he is not the one who nearly loses his life. This is the first time Byron has shown signs of true affection and compassion for his little brother; we have seen him display strong feelings once before, but his feelings were for a dead bird. Byron truly does care about Kenny, but he only realizes the depth of his attachment when it is nearly too late. He feels somewhat responsible for the incident, too, since he knew that Kenny was going to the forbidden area but made no serious attempts to stop him or supervise him. The trip to Alabama is already changing Byron in profound ways -- exactly as it was intended to do.