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In the beginning of Bud, Not Buddy, ten-year-old Bud Caldwell is standing in line for breakfast at the Home, which is an orphanage in Flint, MI. The year is 1936 and the country is in the middle of the Great Depression. Bud is the protagonist and the story’s first-person narrator. By the end of the first chapter, a series of events has been set in motion that will center on the story’s major conflict: Bud’s search for family, namely for the man who he believes to be his father.
The reader experiences Curtis’ story through Bud’s point of view. Bud’s first words, “Here we go again,” which he mutters to himself, leads to his description of the inciting incident that will propel the plot forward and introduce the story’s first antagonist. The news the caseworker brings—that Bud will be sent to yet another temporary foster home—is bad for Bud. His reaction indicates that the first antagonist of the story is the foster-care system itself. Bud has been subject to this system since the sudden passing of his momma when he was six-years old, and he has little power over his future. However, he asserts himself when it comes to his identity, indicating that who (and whose) he is will be a central part of his story: “It’s Bud, not Buddy, ma’am,” he corrects the caseworker who calls him by the wrong name.
Bud also introduces his beloved suitcase, which holds his prized, and only, possessions. His descriptions include important flashbacks to time spent with his momma. These details provide significant clues as to how the plot will develop, particularly the blue flyer, which bears the name “Herman E. Calloway.” Bud assumes this person is his father and desperately wants to find him. This goal, which is the major conflict of the book, will be the motivation behind many of his choices.
The abuse that Bud has already experienced is evident when he describes being a six-year-old in the system: “. . . it’s around six that grown folks stop giving you little swats and taps and jump clean up to giving you slugs that’ll knock you right down and have you seeing stars in the middle of the day. The first foster home I was in taught me that real quick.” Bud is headed to his third foster home, where more abuse awaits him.
As the rising action unfolds, events of each chapter will test Bud’s resourcefulness, hope, and courage. He faces his first test at the Amoses, the third foster family to whom Bud has been assigned and another antagonist in Curtis’ story. The family is cruel to him, and though Mrs. Amos self-righteously thinks they’re doing Bud a great favor, they clearly don’t want him around. Bud is able to escape from the shed where Mr. Amos has locked him in and gets revenge of a sort on Todd Amos for beating Bud up and lying his way out of trouble.
There are two places Bud definitely knows he will not go back to—the Home and the Amoses, neither of which provide a safe place to belong. Bud heads to the one place where he thinks he might be safe, the library, where he takes refuge under the Christmas trees outside for the night. He finds comfort in the contents of his suitcase, which give the reader more insight into his family, particularly his momma. More flashbacks about their conversations make clear that the memory of Bud’s momma will be a significant influence during his journey to find his family.
The story’s rising action continues, and the book’s themes begin to emerge. Ironically, Bud’s deepest desire is to belong to a family, and he ends up with a temporary, pretend family in the food line at the mission. His hunger outweighs his natural suspicion of adults, so he plays along. His pretend father and mother, who do not expect anything in return, show Bud more care and concern during an hour at the mission than he’s ever experienced in the foster system. Economic hardship and starvation have a way of bringing people together to help each other.
The underlying theme of family continues when Bugs, Bud’s best friend and “brother” from the Home, discovers Bud asleep near the library. The two make their way to Flint’s Hooverville in hopes of catching a train west. The plan to head west seems like a reasonable one to Bud, though it is a deviation from his goal of finding his father. This decision is understandable given Bud hasn’t made any headway in finding his father and Bugs is the closest thing to family Bud has.
In Hooverville, the size of the group gathered around the fire, as well as its racial diversity, makes a strong impression on Bud. He recognizes the indiscriminate nature of the Great Depression’s financial devastation. Bud’s conversation with Deza Malone gives the reader a glimpse into his inner world when he admits to her that he carries his family inside of him and in his suitcase too.
One of the minor climactic events or turning points in the story occurs when Bud and Bugs are attempting to board the train and the blue flyer Bud is always reading slips from his suitcase. Bud has to quickly decide: go ahead and hop on the train with Bugs, or retrieve the flyer. As Bud stands there, holding the blue flyer he has retrieved in his hand, Bugs tosses his suitcase back to him. The flyer is a significant clue to finding Bud’s would-be father. He decides to stay and heads to the mission for food. “Mission” also has a deeper meaning at this point: Bud is on a mission to find Herman E. Calloway.
Another important turning point in the story occurs when Lefty Lewis finds Bud walking on the road to Grand Rapids. Though at first wary of Mr. Lewis’ motives, Bud comes to trust him, and the next series of events leads to Bud’s eventual arrival at the Log Cabin.
When Bud arrives at the Log Cabin, he finally faces his crisis, or dilemma: the risk of confronting Herman E. Calloway, who is the story’s main antagonist, or maintaining his silence. The latter would likely result in him being sent back to Flint and into the foster care system. In an intense moment, Bud makes the courageous decision to confront the man he thinks is his father. Herman E. Calloway rejects Bud’s news and acts callously towards him. In the next scene, when the band overrules Mr. C’s surliness and invites Bud join them for dinner, tears finally come, and he sobs in Miss Thomas’ arms. She tells him, “Go ahead and cry, Bud, you’re home.”
Bud has found a place where he belongs, with the band, but he has not yet discovered his family identity. The story’s major conflict has not reached its turning point. That climax happens in Chapter 18 after Bud has traveled with the band for a week, and he has shown his rocks to Mr. Calloway, or “Mr. C.” Mr. C. challenges him about his mother’s identity and Bud screams at him, “‘Angela, sir. … Her name is Angela Janet Caldwell.’” What unfolds after Bud’s courageous proclamation of his momma’s name is the discovery that Herman E. Calloway is Momma’s father, and that Bud is Mr. C.’s grandson.
The story’s falling action and resolution occur after Bud has learned his true identity. The reader experiences, through Bud’s point of view, the highly emotional sorting through of the truth’s effect and its ramifications—for himself, for his grandfather, and for Miss Thomas and the band members. At its conclusion, Bud is in his momma’s room—now his room—her memory very much alive: “‘Here we go again, Momma, only this time I can’t wait!’”