In Flint, the Watsons are not particularly affected by racism or prejudice, but once they go south to visit Birmingham, it becomes another story. Daniel and Wilona often talk about the way the South segregates blacks, but prejudice does not seem real for Kenny and his siblings until they go to Birmingham and experience racism for themselves. After Kenny is exposed to this horrible truth of life, he is deeply affected; he is forever changed after witnessing the church bombing, because for the first time he realizes how someone's skin color, a characteristic that is completely beyond individual control, can elicit so much hate in the hearts of others.
This novel is primarily the story of the Watsons, a very close family of people who value their bonds and relationships with one another above all else. Though the siblings often get into skirmishes, they consistently defend each other; for example, Byron ensures that no one picks on Kenny too badly at school (at least if he isn't the one picking on Byron himself), and Joey and Kenny try to defend Byron from their mother's punishment when Byron plays with matches. The family is tight-knit and loving; though the Watsons have trouble at times, they are mutually trusting and offer a positive model for family relationships.
The people we choose to surround ourselves with often play a huge role in determining the people we turn out to be. The Watsons Go to Birmingham displays this idea by contrasting the two brothers' choices of friends. Byron hangs around with Buphead, who exerts a terrible influence on him and encourages him to be a bully and a delinquent. Kenny, however, chooses to spend his time with Rufus, who unwittingly teaches Kenny a few very important life lessons. Kenny learns over the course of the novel that to be a friend means to stand by your friends and that, in the end, friendship is worth the effort.
Kenny and his family are certainly not rich, but they are not poor, either. Though they do have to think about money and save wherever possible, they are able to live comfortably and afford the things they need. Rufus and his brother, however, do not have quite so much when they arrive in Flint. Class is a touchy subject for the Watson children, who do not genuinely understand what it means to be on welfare or what it is like to be truly poor. Other than economic class, though, social class also comes into play in this novel, particularly within the local school. The school social ladder determines who gets bullied and picked on and who does not, and almost serves as a representation of the wider adult world outside the classroom.
As a ten-year-old child, Kenny does not often think about death. The idea of dying is not something he has to concern himself with -- that is, until he experiences the church bombing in Birmingham and realizes that death can come at any time, even when it is least expected. For Kenny, death is represented by the Wool Pooh, a character who appears every time someone dies or nearly dies. As the Wool Pooh slowly becomes more real to Kenny, so does the idea of death. Kenny realizes that everyone will die eventually; more chillingly, he discovers that hate itself can be a deadly weapon.
Kenny experiences strong feelings of guilt many times throughout this novel. This emotion starts off on a small scale, when he feels guilty for hurting Rufus's feelings, and eventually assumes a much larger scale, when he feels guilt after witnessing the church bombing. Kenny had absolutely no control over this terrible incident, yet he cannot shake the feelings of guilt the experience produces. Meanwhile, throughout the book Byron breaks a number of rules yet never seems to feel guilty about them. This behavior presents a strange paradox: a person can experience no guilt even when he or she is guilty, but conversely, guilt can be felt even when a person is not at all at fault.
Coming of Age
The literary genre term for a book such as The Watsons Go to Birmingham is bildungsroman. A bildungsroman is a novel in which the principal character "comes of age," whether this process entails physically growing older or just experiencing an emotional maturation or transformation. In this novel, the "coming of age" is the latter. Even though Kenny does not age very much over the course of the novel, he certainly learns some important lessons about himself and the world around him, which can be both beautiful and cruel. Some aspects of this transformation are not always good; Kenny loses much of his innocence after witnessing the church bombing, and even though he is consequently wiser, he may not necessarily be better off.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 Questions and Answers
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