BUD, NOT BUDDY
By Christopher Paul Curtis
Delacorte. 245 pp. $15.95
DAVE AT NIGHT
By Gail Carson Levine
HarperCollins. 281 pp. $15.95
Reviewed by Jabari Asim
An orphaned boy spends a dreadful period as an unwanted addition to an adoptive family, then takes off on a magical journey during which he discovers that he possesses some very special skills. Harry Potter, perhaps? Not so fast: Although orphan boys making good are a staple of young peoples' literature, any mention of them these days is almost guaranteed to evoke J.K. Rowling's charming series featuring a certain resourceful young British lad. Anyone searching for other books likely to capture the attention of Rowling's fans needn't look far. Two recent books also portray the adventures of scrappy young heroes seeking to escape desperate circumstances.
Whereas Harry Potter has his awful relatives to deal with, 10-year-old Bud Caldwell suffers the indignities inflicted upon him by the Amos family. Much like Dudley, Harry Potter's villainous cousin, the Amos's 12-year-old son Todd is a sadistic, conniving bully. After a fight with Todd earns Bud a torturous night in the Amos's tool shed, Bud decides to go on the lam. Bud is the protagonist of Bud, Not Buddy, Christopher Paul Curtis's first book since his much-lauded debut, The Watsons Go To Birmingham -- 1963.
Having set his tale in Depression-era Flint, Mich., Curtis takes care to include the cultural landmarks of the period. After his escape, Bud secures a meal or two by waiting on a bread line, talks to jobless men who ride the rails, and spends an eventful night at Flint's own Hooverville. Amid the humble assemblage of cardboard shanties, a little girl shares a bit of wisdom that propels Bud toward his destiny: "Someone who doesn't know who their family is, is like dust blowing around in a storm, they don't really belong any one place."
When Bud's mother died, she left behind little more than a rock collection and a handful of flyers advertising appearances by a bandleader named Herman E. Calloway. Convinced that Calloway is his long-lost father, Bud heads for Grand Rapids, where the musician is based. Bud is a streetwise kid who hides his typical childhood fears (the dark, monsters, etc.) behind a stoic facade. Well-trained by his mother, he is shrewd enough to know that a ready smile and elaborate manners can often sway adults. He takes pride in his ability to manipulate grown-ups -- he considers himself "one of the best liars in the world" -- and is a self-styled philosopher. Among his many "Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself" is regulation No. 8: "If a Adult Tells You Not to Worry, and You Weren't Worried Before, You Better Hurry Up and Start, `Cause You're Already Running Late."
Bud's speech, behavior and point of view are all convincing, a testament to the author's considerable skill. At least as credible -- and certainly as appealing -- are Curtis's adults, many of whom respond to Bud's predicament with generosity and good humor. Chief among these are Lefty Lewis, a union organizer who gives Bud a ride to Grand Rapids; Miss Thomas, the vocalist for Calloway's band; and the band members themselves, whose camaraderie and slick-as-grease banter recall the witty bluesmen who turn up in August Wilson's plays. Only Calloway himself is grouchy toward Bud, who observes, "Herman E. Calloway seemed like the kind of person that would rather get bit in the behind by a snaggletooth mule than have somebody give him a kiss." The bitter bandleader eventually warms up, however, and takes Bud in. In an author's note, Curtis writes that he based Lewis and Calloway on his grandfathers. His book is a fine tribute to both of them.
Had Bud met Dave Caros, the hardy youngster who narrates Dave at Night, he'd have found a boy with whom he had much in common. Dave's world changes forever on Oct. 26, 1926, when his carpenter father suffers a fatal fall. His mother died years before, so Dave and his brother, Gideon, are left at the mercy of relatives. His gentle, scholarly brother is taken in by an uncle, but Dave, an admitted troublemaker, is shuttled off to the Hebrew Home for Boys.
The Hell Hole for Brats, as its residents sometimes call it, contains both the best and worst of human behavior. The boys who must live there form a buddy system based on mutual dependence and fraternal devotion -- a positive response to their shared plight. The director, however, the beastly Mr. Bloom, is a brutal man who beats his young charges and steals from them as well. Frustrated and desperate, 11-year-old Dave takes to sneaking out at night and exploring the nearby streets. Soon he wanders into Harlem, where an eccentric old fortune-teller takes him under his wing. Dave's new mentor is Solomon Gruber, a shabby dresser who peppers his speech with Yiddish phrases and travels with a big gray parrot perched on his shoulder. A strong bond develops between this odd pair as Solomon introduces Dave to Harlem society, where dark-skinned matrons, poets, gamblers and musicians mingle at elaborate rent parties that go on until sunrise. It's a world far different from any Dave has known, yet somehow familiar too. "The air was full of perfume," he notes. "If I stuck out my tongue, I'd taste it. Everyone was dressed up. Some of the men's suits were surprising colors, like light blue or dark yellow. . . . Everyone seemed happy. They reminded me of Papa and his brothers and sisters when they used to get together."
Levine, a Newbery Award honoree, displays a sure touch as Dave's newfound friendship with Solomon and a Harlem heiress lead to valued reforms at the orphanage. She deftly inserts historical personages (Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman) without interrupting the story, which is compelling enough in itself. Inspired by her own father's childhood, Levine has fashioned a winning fable certain to delight young readers everywhere.
Jabari Asim is a senior editor of Book World. "The Road To Freedom," his novel for young readers, will be published next year.