The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963

The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 Summary and Analysis of Chapters 5 & 6


Chapter 5

Byron has a habit of playing with matches, and Wilona repeatedly threatens to do "what she always said she would" if he keeps it up. Her house caught fire once when she was a child and she does not want the same thing to happen again. Despite these warnings, Byron continues his bad behavior; Kenny peeks in on him in the bathroom, where Byron is pretending to make a movie in which he lights toilet paper parachutes on fire and drops them into the toilet.

Wilona comes upstairs to investigate why the toilet is being flushed so much and smells the match smoke. Furious, she drags Byron down the stairs by the neck and tells Joey to go to the kitchen and bring her a box of matches. Joey is upset and tries to defend Byron, so Wilona asks Kenny, but he balks as well. Wilona is forced to go get the matches herself. Joey tells Byron to run and get away. Wilona's plan is to burn Byron's fingers so that he feels what fire can do and never touches matches again.

Joey starts to cry, and Wilona softens up a bit and explains that she has to do this even though she does not want to; if she does not correct Byron, their house might be set on fire. Byron tries to run, but Wilona catches him and is about to touch a lit match to his fingers when Joey quickly blows out the match before it gets to him. Joey continues doing this as her mother tries again and again, until finally Wilona gives up and lets Daniel take responsibility for punishing Byron later that night.

Chapter 6

Wilona asks Byron and Kenny to go to the store and get a few things for dinner. Rather than giving them money, she tells them to sign for the food; the Watsons will then pay the grocer, Mr. Mitchell, on the next payday. Byron takes this arrangement as a sign that the Watsons are on welfare, even though they are not, and complains. Wilona scolds him, saying that food is food and that they have eaten welfare food in the house before. The boys have no choice but to listen to her and go to the store.

Byron tells Kenny to hold their spot in line while he looks at some comics; Kenny knows that Byron is doing this is so that Kenny will be the one who has to be embarrassed by asking to sign for the groceries. Kenny tells Mr. Mitchell that the groceries need to go on the welfare list. Yet Mr. Mitchell laughs and reminds him that the welfare list is not in question; all signing for the groceries means is that their father will pay all at once instead of a few times a week.

After the two boys leave, Byron wishes that they had taken more free food when they had the chance to, since all they had to do was sign for it. A week later, Kenny is walking near Mitchell's when a cookie with pink frosting comes out of nowhere and hits him on the head. Byron, it turns out, is throwing cookies at him from a nearby apple tree. Byron has an entire bag of Swedish Creme cookies, and offers Kenny some. Kenny realizes that Byron has been signing for groceries all this time, and that the Watson parents have no clue. Byron tells Kenny that he cannot tell the rest of the family, since Kenny has eaten some of the cookies already, too, and would also be in trouble.

Byron starts throwing cookies at a bird sitting on a telephone wire. One hits the bird right in the chest and the bird falls to the ground, dead. Kenny is astonished that Byron managed to hit the bird, but Byron is uncharacteristically horrified, so horrified that he throws up. Byron insists that it he has simply gotten sick from eating apples from the apple tree, and tells Kenny to scram; he does, but comes back later and sees that Byron has made the bird a little grave and buried it.


Byron's misbehavior has already become a major motif of this novel. He shows a lack of regard for the rules that goes beyond the typical "rebellious adolescent" stage, and he cares very little about punishment. Also notable is his compulsive need to continue a behavior even when asked to stop numerous times, as evidenced in Chapter 5 with the match predicament. Byron is all about self-indulgence, to a point that is fairly frightening.

Presumably, such misbehavior has gone on for a while, yet Byron's antics have not actually become the main source of conflict in this novel. Each of the six small vignettes readers have read so far covers a different incident, almost always provoked by Byron. His pattern of behavior is one of the main threads tying these separate chapters together. They all have the same characters, but they each give a glimpse into a different part of Kenny's life, with the one major common component being trouble caused by Byron.

In Chapter 5, readers get the first very overt sign of the Watson parents' frustration with their eldest son's behavior. Wilona's choice of discipline is controversial, but such a harsh measure is the only thing that Byron is legitimately afraid of. The other children are afraid, too, even though they are not in any danger of such tough discipline. Joey's willingness to stand up for Byron even against her mother's wishes shows her compassion and her desire to protect her older brothers.

The family's discussion about welfare adds another layer to the theme of class division present in this story. Money is not typically something Kenny and his siblings have to think much about, but since the Watsons are far from rich, certainly there is some penny-saving going on in the Watson household behind the scenes. Clearly, though, Daniel and Wilona do not often discuss such things with their children, which explains in part their aversion to the idea of being on welfare. Largely unfamiliar with welfare itself, the two Watson parents associate welfare with poverty and shame, even though normal families like theirs might need a little extra help sometimes.

Byron's willingness to take advantage even of the family's financial situation takes his disobedience to an entirely new level. He himself was the one who initially believed that signing for food meant that the Watsons were on welfare, and yet he still exploits the grocery arrangement to get himself free food at his parents' expense. He does not understand the importance of respecting authority, and he also does not understand the importance of respecting money, which is a sure sign of his immaturity and foreshadows many serious problems that will arise later in the novel.

But Byron's hard exterior does conceal a softer, more emotional side. Even Kenny is not nearly as affected by the death of that bird as Byron is. Byron has never shown remorse for beating up a human, even though some of the things he has done have been pretty brutal. Now, though, he becomes sick over the fact that he has accidentally killed a bird. This response shows some small traces of the trait of the compassion already apparent in his younger siblings, and suggests that there is a lot more to Byron than meets the eye.