The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963

The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Why is the theme of familial love so powerful in this novel?

    This novel brings into focus the stark contrast between two opposed concepts: love and hate. The events at the end of the story offer a chilling illustration of the disastrous effects of hate, yet the theme of familial love is made all the more powerful because of this. As Kenny acknowledges, there is magic in the love that two family members have for each other, and it is Kenny's family that is able to patch him up after he feels guilty and terrified following the church bombing. Love is incredibly powerful as a force that can run counter to hate.

  2. 2

    In what ways does Kenny change over the course of the novel?

    Though he is incredibly perceptive and smart, Kenny still has a child's view of the world at the beginning of this text. His largest concerns are the bullies in elementary school and the kids who steal his dinosaurs, and he is somewhat oblivious to the world outside his small family bubble. Over the course of the story, Kenny learns many important lessons, such as how to be a true friend and why you should stand up for those you care about. He also loses some of his innocence, learning that death is a real threat and that hate has the power to completely consume a person. However, this innocence is replaced by a new-found maturity and resilience, and Kenny grows up immensely by the end of the novel.

  3. 3

    In what ways does Byron change over the course of the novel?

    The primary premise of the novel, the Watsons' trip to Birmingham, is intended as a means of changing Byron's mischievous ways. The beginning of the novel sets Byron up as an immature delinquent who thinks that the world is one big joke and does not understand the consequences of his actions. Even though the Watsons do not leave him in Birmingham, they still accomplish what they hoped to accomplish on their trip. Byron's eyes are opened after what happens at the church, and the thoughtful talk he gives Kenny in the very last chapter proves that he has reached a new level of maturity.

  4. 4

    How does the social ladder at Clark Elementary reflect the social structure of the world outside?

    There is a clear social hierarchy at Clark Elementary, with much of it based on age; there are bullies in all age groups, but which bullies get bullied depends on how old they are. Because Byron is the oldest kid there, he rules the school, with everyone else situated under him. The chain of power continues downward, with poor and relatively isolated students like Rufus on the very bottom. The outside, adult world has a similar hierarchical structure, though based on factors like socioeconomic status and race rather than age and misbehavior. This novel explores the effects of both race and familial income on a person's place in society's structure.

  5. 5

    Why is the Wool Pooh significant?

    The Wool Pooh is the way Kenny manifests the idea of death in his own mind. Death was never something Kenny thought about before he nearly drowned at Collier's Landing or saw the little girls after the church bombing, yet these events have taught Kenny important truths -- that people are not invincible, and that death is a very real thing. He holds on to his idea of the Wool Pooh because it is his personal way of making some sense of the concept of death, and of dealing with the deaths of innocent people like those four little girls.

  6. 6

    Why may the author have chosen to keep Joey alive after the bombing, rather than having her die in the church?

    The Watsons Go to Birmingham is primarily a story about a family and its powerful sense of unity and compassion. Having Joey die would certainly have sent a potent message about the inevitability of death, but such a death would have broken up the family unit that this text centers around. It is more important that readers see the way the Watsons pick one another up in the wake of such a tragic event; had Joey died, a new dimension of horror would have dulled the novel's powerful message that love can truly prevail in the end.

  7. 7

    How does the Watson children's awareness of race change after their experience in Birmingham?

    Racism is not something that significantly touches the Watson children's lives before they reach Alabama. All they know about segregation is what their parents have told them about events in the South. They are aware that they are black and that society deems them different from their white counterparts, as evidenced by Joey's discomfort at being told that she resembles a white angel doll, but they do not seriously know what racial difference and racial prejudice mean until the events in Birmingham unfold. The church bombing spoils the children's innocence by alerting them to the divide that race creates in society, bringing a new awareness of the kind of hatred people can develop over something as uncontrollable and insignificant as skin color.

  8. 8

    Why is it important that Kenny becomes friends with Rufus?

    The way the other children treat Rufus when he first arrives at Clark, simply because he is different from them, foreshadows the nature of the hatred that the white supremacists have for the black worshippers at the end of the novel. It is important that Kenny learn to accept those who are different from him, because this kind of tolerance is something that American society must learn to exhibit if it is ever going to overcome the racial divide. Being friends with Rufus opens Kenny's eyes to the importance of acceptance.

  9. 9

    How is Birmingham different from Flint? How is it not?

    Birmingham, Alabama, is openly segregated in a way that Flint, Michigan, is not. However, Kenny notes as soon as he arrives in the South that, from a physical point of view, Birmingham is no different from Flint at all; it has regular neighborhoods full of regular houses and regular people living in it, just like Flint. This similarity is important, because it shows that even an entirely normal community can be torn up by acts of violence and hatred. Such apparent similarity makes the key differences between Flint and Birmingham even more astonishing.

  10. 10

    Traveling by car, the Watsons go on a physical journey from Flint to Birmingham. How, though, is this journey symbolic as well?

    This road trip is a symbolic journey from innocence and naiveté to awareness and understanding, even though it is harrowing for Kenny and Byron to attain this new maturity. They learn to recognize the evils in the world and grow as a result of this knowledge. The trip is a coming-of-age journey for both Kenny and Byron, fitting with the common literary theme of a physical journey that represents an emotional journey as well.