The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis (9780545156660)
When Charlie’s father is killed in a freak accident, he and his mother are left destitute and unable to repay his father’s debt to their landlord. The two of them try to flee, but they are caught by Cap’n Buck, the overseer on the local plantation and a man who terrorizes people just for fun. To pay off part of his father’s debt, Charlie joins Cap’n Buck has he journeys north from South Carolina to Detroit to catch some thieves. At twelve-years-old, Charlie is as large as a grown man and no stranger to hard work. But the trip ends in a situation that Charlie was not expecting, with escaped slaves who have built a life in the north. Charlie doesn’t have a lot of choices in life, but perhaps one last decision will make all the difference for him and others.
The Newbery Award winning Curtis writes with such skill that it is impossible not to fall deeply into his stories and become immersed in the world he builds. Here, the strong South Carolina dialect that Charlie and Cap’n Buck speak in helps to strengthen that world building, creating a strong tie to the region and historical setting with language alone. The historical setting is clearly drawn, including the city of Detroit as well as the communities in Canada. These elements are critical because of the slave laws between the United States and Canada that are such an important part of the story.
I fell hard for Little Charlie, a boy who has no education, lives in dire poverty, and whose family has steadily lost everything. There is something about him, about the way he sees the world. He has an optimism that carries him forward each day, not one that is blind or overly ambitious, but a cautious optimism that things can be different. It’s that nature that allows what he does in the book to make sense and not be out of character. Curtis has drawn a character who is an unlikely hero unless you know him well.
Beautifully written and structured, this middle-grade novel is an important look at personal choices and the power of doing what is right. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Scholastic and Edelweiss.