Bud, Not Buddy is the story of a young Black boy’s search for the father he has never met. Following clues from the few possessions he carries that were his momma’s, Bud escapes from a difficult life in Flint to Grand Rapids, Michigan to find his father. 

We first meet Bud as a ten-year-old living in a home for orphaned children, in Flint, Michigan, in the 1930s. Bud was taken to the Home at the age of six, after finding his momma dead on the floor in her bedroom. 

Here we go again, he says at the very beginning of his story. On this day, his caseworker calls his name and says that Bud has been assigned to a new foster family. This new foster family would be his third since arriving at the Home. 

In preparation to leave the Home, Bud pulls his treasured suitcase out from under his bed. He looks at the well-worn blue flyer in it, with its blurry picture of the man whom he’s certain is his father: Herman E. Calloway. He tucks the flyer back in the bottom of the suitcase. He sits on his bed with Jerry, a six-year-old boy who has been placed in a different foster home. While they wait, he comforts a crying Jerry, who has not been to a foster home before. 

Next thing we know, Bud is being bullied by Todd Amos, the twelve-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. Amos, Bud’s newest set of foster parents. Todd, who started the fight, lies to his mother that Bud is responsible. Mrs. Amos locks Bud in his room. Mr. Amos appears with a black strap, but after Bud profusely apologizes to avoid a strapping, Mr. Amos tells Bud he’ll be spending the night out in a locked shed.

After a harrowing few hours sharing the shed with a nest of angry hornets, Bud escapes through a window. Bud, now planning revenge, sneaks through the Amoses’ back door. After hiding the Amoses’ shotgun so they can’t use it against him, Bud creeps upstairs. He pours warm water on a sleeping Todd, who then wets his pants. Then Bud retrieves his suitcase and heads out, “on the lam.”

Bud arrives at the library where he plans to hide out for the night, but finding the basement windows barred, he falls asleep under the tall Christmas-like trees that line the library wall. First, though, he makes sure his belongings are safely intact in his suitcase.

In the morning, Bud is too late joining the mission food line, but a family who calls him Clarence pretends to be his family so he can be fed. He eats breakfast with them, and then heads back to the library. To his dismay, Bud discovers that Miss Hill, the librarian he is sure would help him, is now married and living in Chicago. After studying some maps and distances to Chicago, thinking of how he might get there, Bud falls asleep outside under his same tree. 

When Bud wakes up, he is staring into the face of Bugs, his best friend from the Home. Bud agrees to join Bugs, who is headed to Hooperville to catch a train and “ride the rails.” The boys make their way to Hooperville, which is actually the Flint version of a Hooverville, tent cities that have sprung up all across the country. The boys share food with other homeless people and contribute to dishwashing duties. Bud meets a girl named Deza Malone, who tells Bud that he “carries his family inside him.” She kisses Bud and tells him she will never forget this night. Before he goes to sleep, Bud checks the contents of his suitcase, including a pouch of five rocks which had been in Momma’s drawer. All five have writing on them. One says, “flint m. 8.11.11.”

In the morning, police officers try to prevent a large group of men and boys from boarding the train. Bugs, however, is able to hop onto a car. Bud throws him his suitcase, but slows down when one of his precious flyers falls out. When it’s obvious that Bud won’t be able to catch up to the train, Bugs throws the suitcase back to him. Bud returns to Hooverville, but the cops have destroyed most of it. There’s no sign of Deza. Bud heads back to the mission for breakfast, then heads to the library.

At the library, Bud calculates the distance from Flint to Grand Rapids. It will be a 120 mile, 24-hour walk. He thinks about how the seed of an idea for where his father might be was planted when Billy Burns, a bully from the Home, bet Bud that he didn’t know where his dad was. Bud knows there must be a reason his momma kept those flyers.

Bud walks out of Flint into the countryside. Most of the time, he ducks behind bushes when cars come, but early in the morning he’s too tired to bother and a car pulls over. It is Mr. Lewis, otherwise known as Lefty Lewis, who stops because he fears what could happen to a young Black boy walking alone on a road outside Owosso, MI at 2:30 a.m. Bud tells Mr. Lewis his momma is dead and he stays with his father in Grand Rapids. His father is Herman Calloway. Mr. Lewis surprises Bud by telling him that everyone in Grand Rapids knows who Herman Calloway is.  

Bud falls asleep in Mr. Lewis’ car and wakes up at the home of his daughter, Mrs. Sleet. After breakfast, Mr. Lewis shows Bud the telegram he sent to Bud’s father alerting him that Mr. Lewis would deliver Bud home by 8 p.m. Wednesday. 

Bud spends the day driving around Flint with Mr. Lewis. At one point, a cop stops them, and at Mr. Lewis’ urging, Bud quickly hides a cardboard box full of posters under the seat. The cop searches the trunk for evidence that Mr. Lewis is involved in the labor troubles at the factories and railroads. Eventually, the cop lets them go and tells them to stay safe. Mr. Lewis is taking the posters to Grand Rapids for a meeting of the brotherhood of Pullman Porters. They head back onto the highway, and Bud falls into a deep sleep.

Before we know it, Bud and Mr. Lewis have arrived at the Log Cabin, Herman Calloway’s club. Bud convinces Mr. Lewis to leave him there by going into the club briefly and pretending he’d already spoken to his father. When Mr. Lewis drives off, Bud goes inside for real.

Several people are inside the club. When one asks him if Miss Thomas sent him, Bud tells them that he’s here to meet his father for the first time. Jimmy, the horn player, tries to convince Bud that Herman Calloway, or Mr. C. can’t possibly be his father. Calloway begrudgingly agrees to let Bud come along to the Sweet Pea for dinner, and Jimmy introduces the other band members. At the Sweet Pea, Miss Thomas, the band’s vocal stylist, takes Bud under her wing. He eats his fill, listens to the chatter and stories, then realizes this is where he’s meant to be. He breaks down crying, for the first time in the story. Miss Thomas soothes him, telling him, “Go ahead and cry, Bud, you’re home.”

Bud arrives with Miss Thomas at the Grand Calloway Station, Herman Calloway’s house. He’s led to a room where she says he will sleep, a girl’s room with girl’s possessions still all around. When Bud asks about the girl whose room it is, he is told that she is “gone.” Bud assumes this means she is dead. Mr. Calloway comes in to lock the room’s two closet doors and darkly warns Bud that he doesn’t fool him and that Bud will be going back where he belongs. 

The next morning, Miss Thomas tells Bud that he’ll be staying with them for a while, if things work out in Flint. Band members give him an old saxophone case to carry his things in when the band goes on the road. They give him a recorder to learn music, and decide on a nickname for him, Sleepy LaBone. 

Bud earns his keep by wiping down tables and chairs and mopping the floors at the Log Cabin. When he hears Miss Thomas sing, she’s so good that he wonders why the band isn’t named after her. 

The band goes out on the road, and Bud goes with them. After one of the gigs, Bud finds himself riding with Calloway. Before getting in the car, Mr. C. tells Bud to pick up the rock that’s on the ground by his shoe. Bud does it and gives it to him but wonders what it’s for. Mr. C. puts it in the glove compartment where there are other rocks, each labeled with numbers and words. Bud tells him that he has rocks just like that, and will show them to Mr. C.

Back at Grand Calloway Station, Bud shows Mr. C. his rocks. Mr. C gets angry, and yells that Bud must have stolen those rocks. Jimmy asks Bud where he got them, and Bud tells them they belonged to his momma, Angela Janet Caldwell. Bud sees Mr. C.’s reaction and is convinced Mr. C. is his father. But Jimmy tells him, no, Angela Janet is Mr. C.’s daughter’s name. Bud is Mr. C.’s grandson.

Bud fetches the picture of the girl that he’s carried in his suitcase. His momma is Mr. C.’s daughter. Mr. C. didn’t look for Bud because he didn’t know Bud existed. His daughter had run off eleven years ago. Miss Thomas gives Bud the picture of his mother she’s kept in her room. She asks Bud to be patient with Herman. 

The band members come in and give Bud an old cardboard suitcase. Inside is a baby saxophone. The band had bought it for Bud. He promises he’ll practice hard and be better than all of them in three weeks.

Back in his momma’s room, now his room, Bud arranges his things. He realizes Deza Malone was right. He carries Momma inside of him. One door closes, another one opens.