More than anything else, Bud, Not Buddy is about luck. Bud Caldwell is a young black boy living in an orphanage in Flint, Michigan during the Great Depression. All he wants is to find his father and stay clear of the orphanage, but it seems like his fate is to live briefly with a string of foster parents and wind up right back at the Home.
So that's bad luck. The good luck is the rest of the book. From escaping a terrible foster family situation, to being cheated into a mission line for a hot meal, to being driven to Grand Rapids by a funny old dude (whose character is based on a real Shadow Leagues baseball player), Bud is rescued from tragedy by something outside himself and beyond his considerable intelligence.
Maybe it's too harsh calling this force "Luck"—maybe Christopher Paul Curtis is just trying to demonstrate the legendary kindness of strangers. But would one orphaned black boy during the Great Depression really meet as many kind strangers as Bud meets? Is it possible he would meet no one willing to take advantage of him, or so many hungry people willing to share?
On one level, this book is hard to dislike. It chronicles the adventures of Bud as he escapes the Amos family home, gets a free meal even though he gets in line too late, is chauffeured to Grand Rapids by Lefty Lewis, and ultimately falls in with a hip jazz band that goes by many names and which Bud is convinced is led by his father.
Bud, Not Buddy gets off to a bit of a slow start, and includes some scenes that don't really add anything to the story. What's up with the romantic interlude between two almost-eleven-year-olds in the shanty town? And why do we see so much of the Flint Public Library when books or literature don't really figure into the story?
Once Bud discovers the jazz cats, though, things get a lot more entertaining and interesting. It turns out he does have a connection to them (read the book to find out what it is, no spoilers here), and it also turns out he has some innate musical ability which the cool talking band members soon discover.
It all ends happily ever after. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but while we feel like we've got inside the '30s jazz scene a bit, we don't really feel like we understand the Depression, or racism against African Americans, or poverty any better. Wherever Bud turns people are giving him shelter, warmth, kindness, and huge meals.
Even more troublesome is the fact that every few pages we're treated to Bud Caldwell's Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself. Bud assures us he isn't a thief, but he's proud of being a liar—and while he expresses some mild repentance for lying once, it gets him out of a lot of trouble and never lands him in any.
The message of the book is ambiguous. Bud's mother tells him he's full of potential before she dies, and that he's the most loved boy in the world, and then he does a bunch of bad and questionable stuff, gets away with it, and all ends happily. Plus, we never get to see the harsh and often horrible realities of being black, poor, and orphaned in the Great Depression.
Do we recommend this book? Not really. At the same time, the last part of the book that Bud spends with the jazz band is pretty cool because we get a fairly authentic view of hip musicians when American music was coming into its own. But overall, Bud's character isn't role model material, Curtis glosses important topics, and there are better books about this period.
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