You have to give him credit. Christopher Paul Curtis could have stuck with writing the kind of books that have already brought him much acclaim. The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963 and Bud, Not Buddy are both historical novels for intermediate readers, and both have been hugely successful. Bucking the Sarge, however, is a contemporary novel for older readers. Its protagonist is 15-year-old Luther T. Farrell, who goes to Whittier Middle School, runs the Happy Neighbor Group Home for Men, has an illegal driver's license and keeps a condom named Chauncey in his wallet. Chauncey and that wallet had been together so long that "Chauncey had worn a circle right in the leather, and a circle ain't nothing but a great big zero, which was just about my chances of ever busting Chauncey loose and using him." And, thus, the comic tone of the novel is established.
If Luther seems older than he is and his voice seems a little worldly and swaggering for a 15-year-old, you just have to figure his mother made him that way for her own purposes; she's a very calculating woman. This is a wholly original, latter-day urban Robin Hood tale, where Luther discredits his reputation as a loser and sets out for revenge against his mother, aka the Sarge. Mrs. Farrell has become fabulously wealthy by creating an empire of slum housing in Flint, Michigan. Luther spends most of his time avoiding the Sarge's coffin smile and Darth Vader voice as she directs him and her hoodlum associates in a web of evil doings.
Luther wants out. He wants to be the world's greatest philosopher, not some spider in his mother's web. So, he sets in motion a plan to redistribute her wealth via a science fair competition. In a brilliant, comic series of events involving his mom's safety deposit boxes and a large-scale distribution of ice cream cones, $200 Air Jordans and Armani suits, Luther takes from the rich and gives to the poor before heading out of Flint in a Buick Riviera that, just minutes before, had belonged to the Sarge's partner. There's not another young adult novel like this one, and readers will cheer the high spirits and good nature of Luther T. Farrell, loser no more.
Dean Schneider teaches middle school English in Nashville.