The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963

The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 Summary and Analysis of Chapters 3 & 4


Chapter 3

The new kid, Rufus, ends up in Kenny's math class. The teacher sits him right next to Kenny, who is unhappy with this arrangement because he thinks that the two of them will both get picked on if they are near each other. Rufus appears to decide that he and Kenny will be friends, because he tries to initiate conversation and follows Kenny to the playground at lunch. Since Rufus forgot to bring lunch, Kenny gives him one of the sandwiches his mother made for him.

Rufus asks about Kenny's lazy eye, but the conversation does not last very long; instead, the new boy's attention is captivated by a fat, dumb squirrel. Rufus says that in the South that squirrel would have been shot and eaten by now. Kenny is surprised to hear that Rufus has shot a gun before. Rufus's little brother Cody confirms that this is true, and says that he himself has shot a gun too.

Rufus figures out where Kenny lives and starts coming over to play every night. Kenny does not mind this, since they have the same favorite game: playing with Kenny's collection of little plastic dinosaurs. They play Americans vs. Nazis, and Rufus does not even mind being the Nazis. The only other boy Kenny used to play dinosaurs with was LJ Jones, but LJ had a habit of stealing the dinosaurs. He pulled his biggest trick when they played a game called World's Greatest Dinosaur War Ever, and convinced Kenny that they had to bury the dinosaurs that were affected by radiation. When Kenny forgot about the buried ones, LJ dug them up and stole them. Kenny never played with LJ again after that, so he likes having Rufus around instead.

People start to leave Kenny alone, but they begin teasing Rufus because he speaks with a Southern accent and because he re-wears his dirty, old clothes so often and switches back and forth with Cody, since the two brothers come from a poor household. One time, when Larry Dunn is making fun of Rufus and Cody's clothes, Kenny accidentally laughs along. Rufus is hurt, and refuses to hang out with Kenny anymore. When Kenny asks why he does not want to play, Rufus says that he thought Kenny was different from all the other boys who make fun of him, but that he was wrong. After talking to his mother, Kenny realizes that he needs to apologize. He goes over to Rufus's house, says he is sorry, and insists that he is different. Rufus says he knows.

Chapter 4

Because she was born in Alabama, Wilona thinks that the cold in Michigan is brutal; she dresses Kenny and Joey up to go to school in so many layers that the two children can hardly move. Once they get to school, Kenny must help Joey get all her clothes off. Joey hates this entire setup, and says that maybe Byron can help them convince their mother that her measures are unnecessary. Kenny asks Byron, who reminds Kenny that he used to take all the excess clothing off Kenny when he was little. Byron agrees, though, to talk to Joey and put her mind at ease. Kenny is suspicious.

Byron convinces Joey that the reason she has to wear all the clothes is that, every morning, the streets in front of the Watsons' house are full of dead, frozen people. Garbage trucks come and pick up the dead bodies before anyone wakes up and notices. He says that the only people who freeze are those with thin Southern blood; the reason they have to be so careful is that their blood is half Southern. Kenny knows that Byron's explanation is untrue, but Joetta is horrified and no longer complains when she has to wear her winter clothes.

A good thing about Wilona's obsession with bundling up for the cold, though, is that her children are the only kids in the town who get to wear real leather gloves. Everyone else wears cheap plastic mittens. Kenny even plays a trick with his leather gloves so that Rufus can have a pair too: he tells his mother that he lost his first pair, so she would give him a second pair. Thus, the boys would each have one pair to wear.

One day, though, Kenny's pair disappears. Just a few days after, Larry Dunn comes into school wearing a pair of real leather gloves; the only difference from Kenny's is that Kenny's were black, while Larry's are brown. Rufus insists that Larry stole Kenny's gloves, and shows Kenny the snow that Larry touched. It has stains of black on it, and Kenny realizes that Larry stained the gloves with black shoe polish.

Kenny is upset about this, but makes the mistake of telling Byron and Buphead. The two of them go over to Larry and begin to beat him up until he gives the gloves back. Byron tells Kenny to come over and hit Larry himself. Kenny hits him twice, but not hard, and this is not enough for Byron, who punches Kenny himself in the stomach. A bunch of kids gather around to watch as Byron continues to torment Larry. Byron makes Larry act out a movie called The Great Carp Escape, and repeatedly throws Larry into the fence (like a fish flopping into a net). Kenny is upset that he told Byron what happened; even though Larry is a bully, Kenny understands how rough it is to be beat up by Byron.


From the moment Rufus is introduced, he is set up to serve a very important role in this novel. He is from the American South, a place that is the complete opposite of Flint, Michigan, in weather, customs, and even speech patterns. Rufus and his brother Cody talk with strange accents and discuss hunting, a practice that is alien to the other children at Clark Elementary. The appearance of these new students could teach Kenny and all the other students to learn to be tolerant of those who are different -- though so far, it seems that most students at Clark are off to a bad start.

Rufus and Cody are also different because of their family's economic situation; it is apparent immediately from the state of the few clothes they share that they are significantly worse off than the children of the other families in Flint. Since the students at Clark Elementary do not understand the brothers' hardships, most of the children see the clothes as something else to laugh at. At first, Kenny sees the situation in this way, too, when he assumes that Larry and the other bullies will make fun of Rufus instead of him because of the state of Rufus's clothes.

Kenny appears to rise above petty teasing when he legitimately befriends Rufus, but his good intentions are almost undermined in Chapter 3, when he laughs at Rufus's clothes right along with the other kids. Rufus's negative reaction teaches Kenny an important lesson about acceptance of others and awareness of other people's feelings. Just because someone is your friend, that does not mean that your words or actions cannot still hurt them. Kenny does feel remorse for his actions, though, and luckily the conflict is resolved by the end of the chapter. Readers are reminded that Kenny is still young and still learning; he makes mistakes, just like everyone else, but the important thing is how earnestly he patches them up afterwards.

The dinosaur game "Americans vs. Nazis" is seemingly harmless, but it reminds readers of the historical context of this novel. 1963, the year in which this novel takes place, is less than two decades after World War II; the effects and after-effects of this conflict are still felt and an atmosphere of animosity (whether cultural, political, or racial) is still strong. War is sometimes the ultimate form of intolerance, and the events of WWII took such intolerance to an extreme; in the wake of that war, reformers are attempting to promote tolerance for everyone, but with feelings of division still remaining fostering tolerance is easier said than done.

Byron's influence over his siblings is an important element of this story. Sometimes his presence works in their favor, as when the bullies at school leave Kenny alone because he is Byron's little brother. Most times, though, he manipulates the younger Watsons, as evidenced in Chapter 4 when he convinces Joey that garbage trucks pick up dead, frozen people on the street every morning. Joey and Kenny look up to their big brother, even though he is certainly not a very good influence. This dependence makes it even more important for Byron to shape up and start acting like the role model his siblings need him to be.

Kenny's response to the gloves-stealing situation at the end of Chapter 4 reveals an important bit of his character. It would have been understandable for Kenny to be glad that Byron beat up Larry for stealing his gloves. However, Kenny is compassionate, and can sympathize even with his worst enemy even as Larry is thrown around like a "carp in a net." In this way and in many others, Kenny is the complete opposite of his older brother: he does not believe that violence solves anything.