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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
While on its surface Bud, Not Buddy is a book about a boy in search of his father, it is fundamentally a story about finding a family and a place to belong. The reader is immediately aware of the gaping hole in Bud’s life caused by the death of his mother four years prior. She had taught him the meaning of his name and had left him what he considers clues to his family that he carries with him in his suitcase. The Home falls far short of being a home in any true sense of the word, as have the foster homes to which Bud has been sent. After he escapes the Amoses, Bud joins a pretend family in the food line, has a pretend brother temporarily in Bugs, and meets Deza, who tells Bud that he’s unlike any parentless child she has met. Bud, she says, carries his family inside of him. It isn’t until the members of Herman E. Calloway’s band open their hearts to him, and Bud finally allows himself to cry, that he knows he has found his safe haven, a place to belong.
Race and racism are underlying currents in Curtis’ book. Bud is not preoccupied with either, but Curtis gives the reader glimpses into the racial tensions and inequalities prevalent during the Great Depression. For example, the billboard above the mission showing a smiling rich white family stands in stark contrast to the hungry Black people in the food line. The white family in Hooverville keeps themselves apart, saying they “ain’t in need of a handout.” Lefty Lewis scolds Bud for not recognizing the danger for Black people to travel at night. At the Log Cabin, Curtis describes the racist laws of the time period through the character of Dirty Deed, the only white man in Herman Calloway’s band. Calloway must employ a white person “for practical reasons.” As Bud navigates the transition from childhood to adulthood, it is important that he recognize and understand the nature of race, racism, and its influence on society.
People often pull together during times of economic hardship. While on his search for the man he believes to be his father, Bud encounters situations where the economic hardship of the Great Depression brings people together. In the food line at the mission, when he meets his pretend father and pretend momma, Bud must make a decision: play along or go hungry? Bud’s pretend father recognizes that Bud cannot survive without the help of others, and he risks bumping his own family out of line in order to offer it. Bud joins his pretend family, forced by circumstance into a situation he would not otherwise choose. Survival and a meal wins over Bud’s general distrust of adults. By the end of Bud’s story, Curtis has shown how the financial misfortune of the era brought people from all different walks of life together in unprecedented ways. Time and again Bud will experience people coming together out of a shared necessity to survive, regardless of their race or social status. While Bud does encounter greed and selfishness, like in the cruel Amos family, the predominant response to poverty and need in Bud, Not Buddy is community.
Understandably, given his history, Bud does not trust the adults around him. These issues surface with the caseworker’s news that Bud will be going to yet another foster home. Given that this is his third foster home, he cannot trust the woman’s assurance that this one will be different. “Here we go again” is Bud’s mantra, which he repeats when adults force him into bad situations. Bud Caldwell’s Rules help him outsmart adults and think quickly on his feet. He draws on the Rules to give him advice, and they serve as a quasi-parental guide for his interactions. Bud sees himself as already having one foot in adulthood, “just about a man.” He seems driven to prove that he’s more capable of taking care of himself than any adult is. After his momma’s death, adults have let him down too many times, but survival sometimes forces him to put his trust in those who genuinely want to help him. In Miss Thomas and the band, Bud finally finds the adults he can trust who will nurture his childhood and help him grow into the adult Momma wanted him to be.